Rob Dauster

Double trouble

I had water bottles thrown at me at San Diego. Pennies at LMU. I had people approach me on the bus, screaming at me, trying to jump on the bus. But that’s when it was just bananas. It was a traveling circus in a sense. I don’t know how else to describe it. Everywhere we went was sold out. People were hanging out in the rafters. — Adam Morrison

College basketball this season has been dubbed The Year of the Senior, which simultaneously has been fantastic for the hoops junkies who thrive on seeing the entire arc of a player’s career and a direct byproduct of the lack of elite freshmen across the country.

Ben Simmons got all the hype early in the year, but as his team sputtered and the likes of Denzel Valentine, Buddy Hield and Malcolm Brogdon put together All-American-caliber campaigns, it’s been the veterans who have made the headlines. It’s been a decade since we’ve seen a season that was this senior-laden. That was back in 2006, when four seniors were named Preseason All-Americans and college basketball was still a year away from hosting the nation’s best prospects for their one-and-done season.

Duke’s J.J. Redick was one of the four seniors on that Preseason All-America team.

The fifth guy on that team?

A floppy-haired, mustachioed junior from Gonzaga named Adam Morrison.

That duo did not exactly enter the season without expectation. They were Preseason All-Americans on top-10 teams at two of the most visible programs in the country. But no one could have predicted the phenomenon that they became, their battle for the nation’s scoring title and the race for Player of the Year becoming one of the biggest stories in sports.

This is the story of that season. Each of the participants in the oral history is listed by the title they had during the 2005-06 season. Redick refused numerous requests to be interviewed for this story. His quotes are attributed to the source they came from.

* * *

“He was just unbelievable. He hit shots from everywhere, every play. … It was one of the all-time great games.” – Tom Izzo (Michigan State Head Coach)

Redick was a superstar for Duke entering the 2005-06 season. He had played in the Final Four as a sophomore, and he was a first-team All-American as a junior, when he averaged 21.8 points per game. He already was one of the most hated players in college basketball history. Morrison entered the season as another guy in a long line of Gonzaga stars that those outside of the West Coast Conference couldn’t really distinguish, but all it took was three games for him to make the transition into a national sensation.

That was when Morrison put on a show in the Maui Invitational, leading the Zags to the title game in a tournament that included four teams ranked in the top 12 and five in the top 25. The game everyone remembers was against Michigan State, a nationally televised, triple-overtime thriller played in primetime on a weeknight, when Morrison finished with 43 points.

JOHN BLANCHETTE (Columnist, Spokane Spokesman Review): “Really, the whole deal it started with the tournament in Maui that Gonzaga played in, with Morrison playing sensational basketball.”

MORRISON: “That was the breakout for myself and that particular Gonzaga team. It was obviously nationally televised and that’s always a fun tournament to watch. Then Michigan State speaks for themselves as far of their talent and track record. Then also, it’s just a three-overtime game that was really fun to watch.”

IZZO: “Maurice Ager and Adam Morrison had a shootout that Morrison won. He was just unbelievable. He hit shots from everywhere, every play. It was a helluva game. I thought [Gonzaga] played really well and we played pretty well, but [Morrison] definitely was the difference in the clutch. He kept answering the bell, making shot after shot. It was one of the all-time-great games.”

BLANCHETTE: “It was literally a March game in November. I can’t remember any Gonzaga tournament games that had as much fire and as much passion as that one did. Maybe because of the setting a little bit, it’s that tiny little gym in Lahaina. There was just an atmosphere to it that was otherworldly.”

MARK FEW (Gonzaga Head Coach): “There’s no fluff, no nothing. There’s two little tiny locker rooms and you share it with the team that just got over and you’re out of there because the next team comes in.”

LEON RICE (Gonzaga Assistant Coach): “It’s pure. You go and you play in these big NBA arenas in front of 20,000, but there’s nothing like these pure gyms, where you’re warming up and stretching and the other team is on the other side of a curtain.”

BLANCHETTE: “That tournament really set the tone for the season. For people locally, it kind of said that this team had a chance to do something great. Nationally, people said, ‘Look at all this drama, look what these guys can do, look at this guy who is going off for 43 points.’”

RICE: “Coach Few, he always had concerns, he was like, ‘I don’t know, guys. We’ve lost our ability to score. Adam has lost his ability to score. He doesn’t score like he used to.’ I’d been with Mark for a long time and we had been best friends for a long time so I didn’t bother arguing with him.”

“That game in Maui, Adam gets 43. That game was one of the most remarkable individual performances I‘ve ever seen. Looks like Adam hadn’t lost his ability to score.”

FEW: “Leon was right.”

IZZO: “Whatever we did [against Morrison], it failed. Like a good head coach, I blame my assistants for that.”

DEREK RAIVIO (Gonzaga Point Guard): “That’s kind of when he started getting into a big rhythm.”

MORRISON: “That put it at a whole different level from there on out.”
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* * *

“He’s like a mountain stream of running water. It goes up against one rock and turns another way. It never stops flowing.” – Rick Barnes

Morrison’s season was rolling along for the first month. He had 25 points against Maryland, 25 against Washington State, 34 against Portland State, another 43-point outburst at Washington. Redick, on the other hand, was just kind of floating along, doing what had become customary for him at Duke. He failed to break the 20-point plateau in four of his first eight games. He struggled against Memphis. He struggled against Virginia Tech. Duke was 8-0, but it wasn’t playing the way that you would expect an 8-0 team ranked No. 1 in the country to be playing. 

Then, December 10 happened. Duke was playing No. 2 Texas in the Meadowlands, and Gonzaga was taking on Oklahoma State in Key Arena in Seattle in the back-to-back games of a doubleheader on CBS.

DAN WIEDERER (Columnist, Fayetteville Observer): “There’s a unique intensity that comes with playing at Duke. On one side, there’s this perception that (Mike Krzyzewski) teams are always overpraised and overhyped. That, in turn, leads to this exaggerated wave of criticisms. So what I remember most about the leadup to that Texas game is that Duke had really been feeling mentally strained. The previous weekend they had dodged an upset at Cameron (Indoor Stadium) against Virginia Tech when Sean Dockery hit a half-court shot at the buzzer. A few days later, they’re sloppy and out of rhythm in an underwhelming win against Penn. There was this stress that came with that. It didn’t matter that you were 8-0 at Duke. If you were ranked No. 1, people wanted you to prove it.”

GARY PARRISH (Writer, Memphis Commercial-Appeal): “Clearly because of the way the schedule played out, the J.J. Redick thing wasn’t a thing yet. I remember this: Even though J.J. had scored 22 points per game the season before, I don’t remember Memphis playing against J.J. Redick being a big deal. It was Memphis against Duke.”

WIEDERER: “As early December college basketball games go, it had all that buzz. OK, this is important. No. 1 vs. No. 2. Verne Lundquist and Billy Packer on the call. One of the first games on CBS early in the season. Vince Young was in New York for the Heisman trophy ceremony and he comes to the game. There’s this buzz for the whole thing.”

CHRIS COLLINS (Duke Assistant Coach): “They had LaMarcus Aldridge, Daniel Gibson, P.J. Tucker. They were loaded. And J.J. just went off. Nine threes, 41 points. They were incredible threes, off-the-dribble fadeaways, guys all over him.”

MIKE KRZYZEWSKI (Duke Head Coach): “As good as they come. For me, it’s up there with any [performance] that any kid has had for me.”*

GREG PAULUS (Duke Point Guard): “It was a special performance. It was just one of those days where, as a point guard, you see him getting it going early and you try to find him whenever you can. He was just making shots.”

LEE MELCHIONNI (Duke Shooting Guard): “J.J. had a lot of open looks, and his ability to come off screens and get open, just burying almost every shot he took. Typical J.J. He just came out gangbusters and set the tone from early on in the game.”

RICK BARNES (Texas Head Coach): “He’s like a mountain stream of running water. It goes up against one rock and turns another way. It never stops flowing.”*

WIEDERER: “He put on a damn show. Nine 3s, not just that he scored 41, Duke wins that game by 31 points.”

COLLINS: “Right after our game, it was a national doubleheader, and I think right after our game [Gonzaga] played.”

FEW: “We were not playing good. Oklahoma State did a good job taking us out of things.”

RICE: “Oklahoma State did everything but win that game. They put themselves in a great position and they did all the right things. They were right there.”

Oklahoma State led by a point with less than 10 seconds left after they missed a free throw.

J.P. BATISTA (Gonzaga Center): “I remember grabbing the rebound and he was the first guy in front of me, so I passed to him and ran to set a screen on him.”

RICE: “We got the ball to Adam on that wing.”

FEW: “We were mulling through some stuff, and then Adam hits a banked three at the buzzer to win.”

BATISTA: “In the locker room he came in yelling, ‘I CALLED BANK! I CALLED BANK!’”

RICE: “To this day, he claims he called bank. That’s one of those legendary Adam things. Knowing Adam, he might have. He banked that thing in from the side for the game-winner. That was pretty remarkable, but that was Adam. We speak about the things that we see in practice, we would practice situations like that all the time and Adam would always make them. We would try to stack the situations even harder. Length of the court, one second left. ‘There’s no way Adam’s going to make this one.’ Then they’d throw it to him at half court and he’d make it. Gosh. That’s when we knew we were seeing things that were not normal. Once in a lifetime. That’s what we would see in practice all the time. When he made it against Oklahoma State, we were like, ‘Yeah, that’s Adam.’”

FEW: “He’s been saying [he called bank], but I doubt it. No one calls bank.”

DAVID PENDERGRAFT (Gonzaga Forward): “I know what he says. I was going to rebound the miss. I was focused and didn’t hear it. Let’s go with that.”

DEREK RAIVIO (Gonzaga Point Guard): “It didn’t surprise me he made it. He was always throwing shots like that up in practice. Messing around, it was kind of fitting. It was just like, ‘Oh, man, that’s Adam right there.’ He said he called it, but I guess we’ll never know.”

MORRISON: “No, I didn’t call bank. What am I supposed to say? It was one of those things where I’ve made a banked 3 before so it wasn’t like an out-of-this-world thing, but I wasn’t trying to bank it in on a fadeaway. It just so happened to go in. So I went with it. It’s like when you make a really long putt. You say you meant to do it. I was going to take the final shot regardless. I certainly wasn’t going to pass it. So I’m just glad it went in, to be honest.”

COLLINS: “That was the day that the J.J. vs. Adam stuff took over the country, and the college basketball season became their year.”

JAY BILAS (ESPN and CBS color commentator): “It was a two-man race really from December on. I don’t remember anyone else really entering the conversation.”

*(Quotes from postgame press conferences.)

* * *

“Before we were just two buddies playing Halo together, and now we’re like, ‘Do you think our calls are being monitored?'” – J.J. Redick

Part of what made the race for the Player of the Year such a media spectacle was that both Morrison and Redick were living, breathing caricatures of the people we wanted them to be. Redick was the archetypal ‘Duke Villain’, a cold-blooded superstar who looked like an Abercrombie & Fitch model. Morrison was a prototypical counterculture college kid, reading Karl Marx and listening to Rage Against the Machine while growing out his hair and showering around twice a week.

That they were both white, confident and brash enough to come for your throat on the court and then tell you, all of your teammates and everyone in the arena within earshot about it only made the subject all the more irresistible.

And then the media found out they were besties who played video games online.

MORRISON: “We were kind of two of the better players to watch at that time. And to be honest, we were both white guys, so that played into it. You’d be an idiot not to think that was a part of it.”

REDICK: “We’re both competitors and we’re both really, really white.”**

MORRISON: “We met at the 2004 Jordan Camp. All the college guys make their rounds at Adidas, Nike and then the Jordan camp. We met there and had similar interests and kept in touch.”

REDICK: “We played Halo 2 together. He [was] on there all the time.”**

RAIVIO: “I remember with video games, he would get really into it. I’d be coming back from practice and he would be hooting and hollering down the hall. ‘Oh, that’s Mo right there. Getting into it with somebody.’ He loved the college experience and the college lifestyle. He was close to all the guys in the dorms. He was always down to play video games. He just thrived in that atmosphere.”

MORRISON: “[J.J. and I] really didn’t play together much. That was an angle the media took. It was a three-hour time difference and obviously being busy with school and our respective roles on the team, video games were kind of on the back burner. It wasn’t as big as everybody made it out to be.”

WIEDERER: The angle was overblown. It was this sort of new-age, 2006 relationship of guys on opposite sides of the country who could talk on a cell phone, text, get on X-Box headsets and play Halo. They could share this common ground, great shooters that could share the spotlight of being a college superstar. Both really into video games. Their communication kind of took off, but those guys, until the postseason when they were collecting awards, they had only met in person one time, 2 1/2 years earlier.”

MORRISON: “It was right at the time when Facebook and all that stuff started to become normalized. Text messaging was no longer thought of as a T9, weird thing to do. It was definitely on the national scale not comparable to now. Everybody’s in touch with each other in some way or fashion.

REDICK: “We’ve talked about how this whole thing between us has been created. I’ll be watching Adam’s game, and Dick Vitale is calling me out and the fans are chanting, ‘J.J. who?’ Before we were just two buddies playing Halo together, and now we’re like, ‘Do you think our calls are being monitored?'”*

*(Via Sports Illustrated.)
**(Via CSTV)

* * *

“It was too easy for him sometimes.” – Derek Raivio

LEON RICE (Gonzaga Assistant Coach): “Adam was a stir-the-pot guy sometimes. He liked to be controversial. He was kind of a James Dean character. It was fun. As a coach, I loved it. I loved showing up to see what was going to happen with Adam that day and see how that was going to go. There’s never a dull moment when Adam’s around. The thing about him, his dad was a coach. He always had respect for us and he would always listen to us. But it was always on the edge.”

MARK FEW (Gonzaga Head Coach): “He’s really, really, highly competitive. We figured out early that if we were going to have good practices, I literally had to make every drill competitive. If I didn’t put a number on it, then he wasn’t interested in giving it his all. 1-on-1 drill, 3-on-3 drill, 5-on-5 drill, then look out. Then it was going to be all the way, right to the level of fisticuffs. Because of that we had remarkable practices. He was so crazy competitive. I would never temper that fire, although at times it was frustrating.”

MORRISON: “My dad probably doesn’t want to hear this, but I wasn’t the greatest practice player at that time. I also was playing 38 minutes a night so I wasn’t exactly into doing the full court 1-on-1 Z until I dropped. I gotta play in a day here.”

RAIVIO: “I still say it to this day. I’ve been in Europe playing nine years professionally, NBA summer leagues and stuff, and of all the guys I’ve seen, he’s got the best ability to put the ball in the hole. Sometimes he would come down and not touch a ball for a month, and he would play pickup and it would be like he was playing ball everyday. It was crazy. Even if you don’t work out for a week, guys are rusty. They’re off. For him, it was just natural. It was too easy for him sometimes.”

DAVID PENDERGRAFT (Gonzaga Forward): “Even when he was done in the NBA, he would come in and play pickup with the guys or we’d play old vs. current guys, and he was amazing. There’s not too many people that can score like that. Three weeks off? He goes in and he just busts guys. It’s unbelievable.”

MORRISON: “I was never injured, so I never took a week or two off. It’s funny, my teammates misremember a lot of things. It’s fine. They set a lot of screens for me so I’ll deal with it.”

PENDERGRAFT: “He did not like to lose. He was intense. He’s not a bully, but he would try to manhandle situations. It’s what made him great.”

J.P. BATISTA (Gonzaga Center): “He was competitive on the floor. He was competitive in a discussion in the locker room. He wanted to be the guy that had the upper hand. He definitely had that competitiveness inside of him. There’s no doubt. We play a game, he wanted to win. We play video game, he wanted to win. He was that guy.”

Proof of that competitive fire could be seen after Gonzaga’s loss to UCLA later that season in the NCAA Tournament. But did you know that Morrison’s most recognizable trait was a direct result of his inability to accept losing?

MORRISON: “One of my teammates dared me to play with a mustache all year when we were joking back and forth, and it kind of grew an identity of its own.”

PENDERGRAFT: “We were goofing off and in the summer, as college kids, you don’t really groom yourself very well. It was one of those things where everyone saw the mustache and in the beginning it just looked ridiculous. And his hair … It was total joke dare and it became a reality. That’s how the conversation went down. Sitting on couches in the summer. But he did it.”

MORRISON: “I think every American boy has a time when bad facial hair was a part of their persona.”

* * *

“It was kind of like, ‘Man, what are you doing? We’ve got a game tomorrow.'” – Lee Melchionni

Talk to anyone around the Duke program at that time, and they’ll tell you that there was a change in Redick between his sophomore and junior seasons. He fully embraced what it meant to be in college, both as a star athlete and a kid that enjoyed the party scene. But entering his junior year, Redick became a different — and unstoppable — force because he was a different person off the court.

REDICK: “I think a lot of college students, when they go through those first two years, they’re trying to figure out who they are and who they’re going to be. And I struggled with that for a while.”

“Maybe if you’ve never partied before and you go to a party on Saturday night and have fun — in your eyes — well there’s another party on Sunday night. Should I go to that, too? You just kind of get caught up in what everybody else is doing.”*

LEE MELCHIONNI (Duke Shooting Guard): “It was kind of like, ‘Man, what are you doing? We’ve got a game tomorrow.’ It’s sort of hard being in that place, but you needed to say that for the good of our team.”*

DAN WIEDERER (Columnist, Fayetteville Observer): “Early on in his career, he partied a little bit more than he should have. He made 3 a.m. visits to the Cosmic Cantina for burritos. He’d be a little heavy.”

MELCHIONNI: “He was enjoying being a college student sophomore year. Not that he wasn’t working hard, but the level his conditioning and preparedness went to his junior and senior year are evident in the statistics that he put up.”

WIEDERER: “There was a point somewhere along the line where both Coach K and Johnny Dawkins pulled him aside and said, ‘You can be an all-ACC player and have a solid career here and do everything the same as you do now, or you can be a jersey-in-the-rafters kind of special if you dedicate yourself.'”

JOHNNY DAWKINS (Duke Assistant Coach): “We asked him, ‘What do you want to accomplish while you’re here?’ The only way you’ll be able to do that is to get yourself into great, great shape. He really bought into that, he really focused, and that became his mission.”

REDICK: “At some point, you wake up one day and think, ‘I’m not really headed down the road I want to head down.’ And I had that day.”*

COLLINS: “That started after his sophomore year. We had a really hard-fought loss to UConn in the 2004 Final Four and he had a late turnover in that game in the lane where he got stripped and we were down by one. He took that loss really hard, and that summer, he made a commitment to his body and his game that he was going to put everything into being as good as he could become. Those last two years, what he was able to do with his shape, I think that’s what set him apart.”

GARRETT TEMPLE (LSU’s Defensive Stopper): “I had to get my track shoes ready to run around with him. A couple of practices before, we had one of our redshirt guys just run around screens the whole practice, some times not even passing him the ball, him just running.”

COLLINS: “We watched a lot of film of Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton, Reggie Miller. Those were the three guys I tried to get a lot of film of for him. At that time, the three best guys in the world in terms of movement, running off screens, being in great shape, non-stop motion, wearing the defense down. Our goal was always to get to those last eight minutes, and instead of JJ being the one that was worn out and tired, the guy that was guarding him, a lot of times, was the guy that ended up being exhausted because they couldn’t keep up.”

*(Via The Sporting News)

* * *

“He had always been targeted because he’s the scorer, a little bit flamboyant. The role was not a new one, it’s just now you’re on Broadway with it and bigger audiences.” — Coach K

“Fans don’t boo nobodies.” – Reggie Jackson

As the season progressed, the amount of attention that Redick and Morrison garnered became, at times, overwhelming. For Duke, it was more or less business as usual. Redick’s star power, and the requests for his time by fans and media, was not all that different from any other Duke star of year’s past. But for Gonzaga, which had already jettisoned its way into conversation as a top 10-15 program nationally, this was an entirely different level of attention.

As their bicoastal, one-on-one battle became the focal point for SportsCenter every morning and reached the cover of seemingly every magazine in the country, the hate that they would receive from opposing student sections reached insane levels. And, perhaps more than anything else, the one trait that defined both Redick and Morrison was that they reveled in that role. It wasn’t that they loved being the villain as much as it was that the trash talk and vile comments got their juices flowing. And when they got pissed off, they were out for blood.

MARK FEW (Gonzaga Head Coach): “That year when we went to Memphis with [John Calipari], it was enormous. They did something in the papers, like 43 reasons why this is the biggest game for Memphis, because Adam had 43 twice.”

GARY PARRISH (Writer, Memphis Commercial-Appeal): “This came at a time where Memphis was in Conference USA, the s**** version. They didn’t have high-profile games too often. Beyond that, Morrison had just had that Maui Invitational and he was becoming this iconic thing. Long hair, mustache, white dude, scoring all the time. It was an expensive ticket. To get in the upper level it cost real money. It was as hyped a game as I can remember at Memphis. It wasn’t Gonzaga was coming to town, it was ‘Adam Morrison is in town.’ It was like ‘LeBron James is in town’ or ‘Kevin Durant is in town’. It was a big deal.”

FEW: “When you got into Memphis, and places like that that are basketball-centric towns, those are basketball fans. They get it. That kind of ignited it and that probably ignited the national scene.”

MORRISON: “It was bananas. That’s when we knew that we were in the slot of being a team that a lot of people like and some will dislike because we were getting so much media attention.”

FEW: “[Adam] was better in that environment. If ever there was an apathetic arena, which there wasn’t that year, he wouldn’t be that good.”

RICE: “When we played Memphis and Calipari knew that. He’s a smart coach, and he had put his guys on warning.”

PARRISH: “In practice that week, I was in the practices, that’s one of the things Cal was stressing. Because these Memphis kids f’ing talk, man. Chris Douglas-Roberts — he wasn’t a Memphis kid but he might as well have been — Shawne Williams, Andre Allen. They’re constantly talking. Cal was like, ‘Listen, cut that s*** out with this dude. Because he’s crazy. You start talking to this kid and he’ll go off. Just don’t say a word to him.’”

“And there it is, first half, Morrison isn’t really going yet, and he and Shawne Williams end up nose-to-nose. And then Morrison took off.”

FEW: “Cal just went nuts and started lighting up Shawne Williams.”

RICE: “Coach Cal went absolutely ballistic on him. Meanwhile, ‘I’m like, this is great, this is going to get Adam going.’”

MORRISON: “We got into some scuffle, I can’t remember what happened. I think he said something or nudged me and I just, I think Cal was right. I think all greats — and I don’t want to call myself great — good scorers or what have you feed off of that stuff.”

FEW: “Adam literally scored the next 20 points. And that’s just kind of how he was. Adam was also the kind of guy that he’d hit a couple shots, the crowd would start booing and he’d raise both hands, like, ‘Bring it on’. He just thrived under that kind of environment or attention.”

CHRIS COLLINS (Duke Assistant Coach): “Inherently, [J.J.] wasn’t that kind of player. He wasn’t like that when he was in high school. He was a great player, but he kind of just played and didn’t allow the outside environment or anything to get him going in either direction. I think initially in his career it was something he struggled with because he was really good when he was early, and I think he couldn’t understand why there was so much venom towards him. He’s a guy who’s really strong with his faith, he’s a good kid, and all of a sudden, he’s like, ‘Why is there so much hate towards me? I’m just out there playing ball.’”

COACH K: “J.J. had a personality that could handle adversity and not let it interrupt performance. It would enhance his performance. He had always been targeted because he’s the scorer, a little bit flamboyant. The role was not a new one, it’s just now you’re on Broadway with it and bigger audiences.”

DAWKINS: “He eventually liked being the villain. Absolutely. To become a great player you have to enjoy that. You have to look at that as a sign of respect.”

COACH K: “He always used it as a positive and never looked at it as a distraction. Never looked at it in a personal way, but in a respectful way. ‘Why are they giving me all this attention? I must be pretty good.’ The real competitors who are put in those situations understand that.”

WIEDERER: “He liked being the villain because he knew there was little point in hating being the villain. He was going to be the villain either way. He sort of embraced it, and I think he became more mature in handling that by his senior year, with the way he interacted with opposing crowds and the way he carried himself. Early in his career he was a little bit more overtly cocky and a little bit more antagonistic.”

STEVE WOJCIECHOWSKI (Duke Assistant Coach): “It was the worst that I’ve seen and/or experienced while I was at Duke. I wasn’t around to experience up close Laettner or all that stuff, but I can’t imagine that anybody in the history of college basketball has endured the exuberance of opponents’ fans like J.J. did. He got it everywhere he went. The thing about him that was pretty neat was that he kind of reveled in it. He got better in those environments.”

COLLINS: “At Maryland that year, they had to turn the boom mics off. [The fans] were all chanting ‘F*** YOU, JJ’ in unison, every single person in that building. He just kind of had that little grin, like, ‘Keep bringing it my way, this ain’t fazing me.’”


MELCHIONNI: “Maryland brought out their best, or worst, however you want to phrase it, when Duke came to town. They had signs that read, ‘JJ drinks his own piss.’”

WIEDERER: “I remember him and Sean Dockery talking about a poster of ‘Brokeback Mountain’ and they had a pink cowboy hat and superimposed JJ’s face on it. He thought it was funny.”

COLLINS: “He learned to just embrace that that was what was happening, and he kind of learned to enjoy the banter and the things people were saying about him, to use it as motivation, but also instead of getting hurt by it, if this is who they want me to be, then I’m going to have fun being that villain. It’s something that he certainly kind of thrived on his last year. I think it helped him deal with all the things that were coming his way.”

REDICK: “I probably in a way bought on some of the animosity towards me with antics. The smiling, the head-bobbing, the trash-talking.”*

“I said, ‘All right, if they want to call me these things, then I’m going to act like a jerk on the court.’ That made people dislike me even more. Over the [last] two years, as I matured as a person, I just [became] more secure in who I am. There’s no reason for me to act like an idiot out on the court or to say stuff to the opposing crowd. Really, the only thing I ever do is just smile because I’m having a great time out there playing basketball.”***

“This is going to sound terrible. At Wake Forest [my senior year], I hit a shot in the second half. It was a tough shot, off a spin move, and I was going down the front row — this is going to make me sound like a jerk — but I just shook my head and said, ‘Man, I’m really good tonight. I don’t know what it is, but I’m just really good.’ I said that to the entire front row. That’s probably the reason people dislike me so much. I guess that’s part of the persona I have on the floor. I would never say that off the court.”**

“But to be honest with you, it was more in reaction to the hate that was already coming my way before I ever did anything to warrant it. It’s almost like every time there is a player at Duke, the media says, ‘Oh, you should dislike this guy.’”*

COLLINS: “Sometimes, if he didn’t have that look in his eye, we knew the way to get to him was to get him mad, get him angry, and if you put him in he would turn it on. The best example of that was his final ACC game. We played Boston College in the ACC Championship and BC had a great team. Craig Smith, Jared Dudley, Sean Williams. They were loaded.”

“It was his last ACC game. Greensboro Coliseum, ACC Championship. Early in that game, they were knocking him around, chucking him on cuts, and I thought he was acting a little bit like a baby in the game. He was complaining, he was whining to the refs. I told Coach K to take him out and we were losing. It wasn’t a big deficit, but we were losing early in the second half. ‘Coach, take him out for a minute. I need to talk to him.’”

“I knew that the only way to get him back to his level was to try to make him mad at me, so I just started unloading on him, calling him a baby, calling him a brat, ‘I can’t believe this is your last ACC game and you’re acting like this.’ After about a minute of me just getting into him, he finally started yelling back at me. As soon as he snapped back at me, I leaned over to my right and I said, ‘Hey coach, we’re ready to put him back in.’ We put him back in and he hit three 3’s as soon as he came in in the span of about 65 seconds and just blew the game open.”


*(Via The Vertical Podcast)
**(Via The Sporting News)
***(Via New York Times

FEW: “The amazing thing to me was that Duke would play two or three hours before us, and J.J. would post an incredible number, and all of a sudden Adam would post the same one or one more three hours later. It was like they were going back and forth, and I don’t know how much the really knew, but it made you wonder. He got 33 and then Adam would get 34 or vice versa. There were a lot of nights like that.”

RAIVIO: “We didn’t really expect to get that big nationally. As the season progressed, it would be on SportsCenter and ESPN every night. Secondary to who won or lost, they just wanted to see who had the bigger game.”

MORRISON: “It got to a point where it was hard for me to go anywhere. It gets to be, ‘I’ve signed three balls for you and now you’re mad I won’t sign the fourth because you want to throw it on eBay?’ As a young kid how do you interact with that situation? Because it’s never presented to you. In any situation in life, nobody gets practice on being a celebrity or whatever you want to call it. It just gets thrown on you. But it was crazy for a while. I couldn’t go anywhere.”

BLANCHETTE: “The SID puts together a conference call, and people can dial in, and they did it in the media room where a couple of us happened to be filing our stories a the time. Adam knew he was going to come in and there were going to be 40 guys on the call, and he was going to answer so much of the same stuff he had been answering all year, and he came in, and the first question was something very typical. And his head just went down and bonked on the table because he was just like, ‘I gotta go through this for another 20 minutes?’ It was the same stuff that he’d been talking about all year. There were times when it dragged on him.”

MELCHIONNI: “Everywhere we went, there were Duke fans and they wanted an autograph, to see (Redick), touch him, be near him. That was no matter where we went, and that was before selfies and social media took off. Before everyone had a camera on their phone. Every restaurant we went to, every arena, even if we just went out, people knew who J.J. was and they wanted a piece of him.”

WIEDERER: “(J.J.) couldn’t watch SportsCenter. What does every college kid want to do: You come home from class, you come home from practice, you put on Sportscenter. But every episode had something about Redick, something about Morrison, something about Duke. He got sick of it. He’d flip on a Gonzaga game to watch Morrison play and Dickie V would be like, ‘J.J., are you watching? OOHHH J.J.?’ It didn’t always have to be about those two, but it always was about those two.”

REDICK: “I [would] check the box score online to see how many [points] Adam had. Neither one of us probably wants to admit it, but we know what each other’s stats [were].”*

*(Via New York Times)

FEW: “It just started rolling from there, and the reason it kept rolling is that [Adam and J.J.] kept producing and kept delivering.”

JAY BILAS (ESPN and CBS color commentator): “If you’re in the WCC, Gonzaga is the storm-the-court game. That’s the game that everyone sells out, and for some, that’s the only one. Same thing with Duke. People come in there ratcheted up for their team to do well and hate you, and those two were the primary targets.”

FEW: “When we got all the way into league, there were just some unbelievable performances where he had 30 in a half with standing-room-only crowds. The fire marshall was kicking people out. Just putting on a show.”

MORRISON: “It was a traveling circus in a sense. I don’t know how else to describe it. Everywhere we went was sold out, people hanging out in the rafters.”

RICE: “We were playing down at Loyola, and they were guarding him, face-guarding him, box-and-1-ing him. All that stuff. There were these fans sitting in the front row on the other side, and they started chipping at Adam, and I thinking, ‘He’s only got seven points, I wonder how he’s going to get to 28 today?’ Those guys got him going and he comes out in the second half and scores 37.”

FEW: “That’s a crazy number. Are you kidding me?”

PENDERGRAFT: “It was a surreal moment. It was like you were watching a video game on easy.”

MORRISON: “Somebody was yapping at me in the crowd. I can’t remember what he said. But it was something that bothered me. It was one of those games where I was in the zone and felt really good. It was one of those things where good scorers in any sport or a musician or anything really where you get into a zone that you feel like you can’t do anything wrong. It was one of those times. Everything I threw up went in. It was fun.”

PENDERGRAFT: “I remember them throwing pennies at us after the game was over. Chucking pennies and bottle caps and everything at us. He was getting into it with the fans and egging them on. He would hit one and just look at them, talk back. Then they’d say other obscene things and he’d do it again. 37 points in one half. It’s just insane.”


MORRISON: “I had water bottles thrown at me at San Diego. Pennies at LMU. I had people approach me on the bus, screaming at me, trying to jump on the bus. But that’s when it was just bananas.”

FEW: “It was like traveling around with the fifth Beatle. We were using aliases to check into hotels and things like that. There were people waiting for the bus in the towns when we got there.”

PENDERGRAFT: “He just did things that made you look at him, like, 1. ‘How, in your right mind, would you decide to do that?’, and 2. ‘How’d you come through doing that?’ There was one in San Francisco where he was feeling it and caught it off the pass and pulled up from the volleyball line, and you’re like, ‘What?’ That is not a good shot for anybody, I don’t care who you are, pulling up from the volleyball line is not a good shot.”

“He hit it. Nothing but net. He had 43 that game.”

FEW: “What would usually happen is that he would end up winning the opposing crowd over. San Francisco, it was standing room only and at the end of the game they’re giving him a standing ovation.”

The subplot to the entire season for Redick was that as he was chasing ACC titles, Player of the Year Awards and scoring titles, he was also making an assault on the NCAA record books, going after Duke’s career scoring record, the ACC’s career scoring record, the NCAA record for 3-point shooting. It was incredible. It was also exhausting.

COLLINS: “That stretch from early December to mid-February, he was doing it every night. There was a look in his eye. I saw it every night. It wasn’t like, ‘Here he’s got it going.’”

BILAS: “Nobody could stop him. They were throwing everything at him. And you’re looking at some of these shots and you’re going, ‘That’s not possible. How do you do that?’ And he just kept doing it.”

WIEDERER: “There was a sense all year long that J.J. understood how big the spotlight was and how big the moments were and he really enjoyed it.”

“I remember that building being super energized that night. They played three consecutive road games after the Miami game, so he needed 30 points to catch Johnny. He really wanted to do it at home, they really wanted it to happen at home.”

COLLINS: “Typical J.J. It was fitting that it happened at home in Cameron. Here’s a kid whose dream his whole life was to go to Duke and get his number retired. He grew up watching the great Duke teams and dreaming of being one of those guys, and I think that made it really special to.”

MELCHIONNI: “It’s an incredible moment for J.J. to not only break the all-time Duke scoring record at home, but to do it with the guy he passed being our assistant coach on the sideline.”

REDICK: “I feel very lucky and I feel blessed and honored for Coach Dawkins to do that. He’s the best player in Duke history, and he helped turn the program around. Without him, I’m probably not here.”*

WIEDERER: “During my time on Tobacco Road, that’s the loudest I’d ever heard Cameron for a non-Carolina game.”

DAWKINS: “I’m sure it was a great to get it there, but knowing J.J. like I know J.J., he was worried about the win.”

*(Via ESPN Broadcast)


COLLINS: “There was a particular night that I really saw it in his eyes. We were playing Virginia at home and that was always a meaningful game for him because that was his hometown school. If he didn’t go to Duke he probably would have gone to Virginia. A lot of guys on that team that he grew up with, playing AAU for Boo Williams, a lot of those guys were on that team. Guys he played in high school with. It was one of the the more remarkable performances I’ve ever seen, I think he scored 40 points on 13 shots. He scored 40 points on 13 shots. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen that.”

BILAS: “The guy went the whole year without getting an open shot. It was all unbelievably contested and coming off screens with guys flying at him or having to shot-fake dribble. It was amazing the work rate and what he had to do to score. It’s not just making the shot, it’s getting it. And I don’t know that anybody had to work harder to get a shot than he did.”

WIEDERER: “The other thing that came of that season is that he played 37 minutes a game. They couldn’t afford to take him out. They didn’t talk him out, [which is unique] for a guy like that under that much scrutiny and that much defensive attention.”

COLLINS: “He got a little bit worn down by the end of the year.”

WIEDERER: “There is this, I call it an exhaustion, that comes with playing at Duke. You’re always going to get the other team’s best shot. You’re always going to get the opposing crowd’s most energetic noise and most hostile chants. There’s a drain to that, and I think the drain goes up exponentially when you’re the best player and it goes up even more when you’re J.J. Redick.”

* * *

“Heart. Break. City.” – Gus Johnson

Everyone remembers the way that Adam Morrison’s final collegiate season came to an end. The team’s collapse, his collapse, the tears. What people may not remember is that J.J. Redick’s career was coming to a close with a loss to LSU as Morrison’s final game was tipping off.

WIEDERER: “It’s one of JJ’s worst games. 3-for-18. 11 points. LSU has this kid, Garrett Temple, a long, athletic freshman who I don’t think did shit in the box score, but he was more athletic and quicker than JJ and hounded him all night.”

TEMPLE: “I remember watching him during the regular season on TV thinking, ‘How’s he averaging 28?’ He’s not the most athletic, he can shoot he piss out of it, but he can’t really create off the dribble. If you watch, the shots that he’s taking are deep, but no one is really crowding him. He uses screens well, but the bigs don’t help. I told my brother that if we win our first two games, I’ll be able to guard J.J. When we beat A&M in the second round, he texted me and said, ‘You got your chance.’”

JOHN BRADY (LSU Head Coach): “That may have been the best defensive effort I’ve seen in one of my teams.”*

COACH K: “We could have had a better offensive game, there’s no question about it. But LSU had a lot to do with that.”*

TEMPLE: “The whole game plan was no open looks. Chase him, chase him, chase him. We helped. A lot. When he caught it, we were there trapping, Big Baby and Tyrus Thomas. It was easy for me to pressure guys because I funneled them right to one of the best shot blockers in the country in Tyrus Thomas. You’re not going to get a 3 up and you’ve got to shoot a mid-range because if you get all the way to the rim, it’s going to get sent to the second row.”

COLLINS: “I thought at the end of the season [the entire ordeal] eventually took its toll. I don’t want to take anything away from LSU, they did a great job, but I also thought that what he had to go through from the start of the season to that point, at the very end he didn’t have quite the pop that he had. It stunk because there was no one to me that was more deserving of going to a Final Four and having a chance to win a national title.”

WIEDERER: “He got pulled out of the game with 11 seconds left of whatever it is and goes to the bench and I was expecting more of an emotional reaction from Coach K and from JJ, but they were both just so numb.”

MELCHIONNI: “When the season ended, it’s a shock. It’s abrupt. It’s final. you don’t really realize that you’ll never take the court again as that team.”

COLLINS: “I still have a huge picture in my house of J.J. and I with our arms around each other after the LSU game. It didn’t end the way we wanted it to end, but his senior year was a magical journey, and I don’t know that we’ll see that for quite some time.”

BILAS: “I did the LSU game and it was surprising. LSU played great. They were so athletic. I watched the UCLA-Gonzaga game after.”


PARRISH: “I was there for that one. That was my last year before I came to CBS. I was the Memphis beat writer and Memphis was in that same regional. Memphis was playing the second game. That was the first game. I wasn’t out there for the second half. I sat and watched the first half, but that game was over. They were up 17 points! I remember leaving the court going, ‘This game’s over.’ You had to walk through all these halls and you’re way underneath the arena. They just set up a bunch of tables under the stands in Oracle. And there’s no TV there. But I hear these roars. Loud, crazy roars. You know something crazy’s happening. I finally get out there and realize that UCLA won this game.”

RICE: “I went back like a year later and charted everything that went right and everything that went wrong. It was just like the perfect storm. Everything had to happen, just one little event changes and we would have won that game.”

FEW: “A big play was that we got an offensive rebound and instead of pulling it out to run more clock we tried to go back up with it and got blocked and that led to a fast break. We had a couple situations where we got the switch we were after, they put (Jordan) Farmar on Adam and he’d been just so tough and aggressive and ornery that he’d just bounce a guy like that down and go through their chin, and he settled for a couple jumpers.”

MORRISON: “Raivio turned it over, J.P. turned it over that could’ve been called a foul, I missed an easy jump shot when we were up two and I had a smaller defender on me and I settled, probably should have taken that and would’ve gotten fouled or to the line. A lot of weird plays happened back to back. Ryan Hollins makes two free throws. Farmer makes that running back from 18 feet.”

BILL GRIER (Gonzaga Assistant Coach): “Luc Richard Mbah-a-Moute full-on dove from behind Raivio to tip the ball away. Then they steal the ball from the strongest guy I’ve ever been around in J.P. Batista.”

MORRISON: “We thought we were going to win. The people watching thought we were going to win. We were thinking of Memphis coming up to go to the Final Four.”

RICE: “That one was, to this day, still is lodged in there and it still rubs against you in the wrong way. It took me forever to even watch that game again.”

RAIVIO: “I remember coming into the locker room and it was silent. Adam was down.”

PENDERGRAFT: “Adam was having a phenomenal year, and we had a good team. Being up like we were … that was a tough one to swallow.”

RAIVIO: “It’s a testament to him and shows how much he put into it and how much he cared. We were like brothers; we were with each other every day. It was like family. We were all there and grieved differently. I think it showed right there what it meant to him.”

BLANCHETTE: “Adam was [at the press conference] and once he calmed down after the immediacy of the loss, he was fine and pretty lucid. He was obviously downcast, but he answered questions.”

MORRISON: “I get how people would throw shade or whatever. I’m fine with it. There’s worse things I could’ve done in life than show emotion.”

“The thing is people always expect me to be embarrassed or shameful of it. I’m honestly not. It doesn’t really bother me. I showed emotion. There’s a lot of other things I could’ve done. I could’ve punched my girlfriend in an elevator. If I’m known for (the display of emotion), I’m totally fine and at peace with it and have been for quite some time. People give me the picture to autograph, and they’re like, ‘Oh, sorry’. I’m like, ‘Why? It’s an image from that year.’ I’ll sign it for you, absolutely. Doesn’t bother me.”

“The UCLA game is not a great memory. But people are like, ‘Oh my god, you said UCLA around him.’ I went to the game last year and sat on the bench, and they were like, ‘You’re going to go to the game?’ Yeah. Of course I’m going to the game. When I was [playing in the NBA] with Charlotte, they were like, ‘I can’t believe you played with Los Angeles.’ I had to look at this guy for 10 seconds, and think, ‘Is he just really dumb and I should give him a pass because he’s stupid? Is he thinking that I won’t come to a city of eight million with beaches and beautiful weather because one of the colleges beat us in a game? Congratulations for waking up every morning, because that probably takes a lot of will power.'”

FEW: “A good percentage of high-level players are moved to tears when their career comes to an end. I don’t know why people reacted so adversely to that. They should have celebrated it and understood just how much these guys put into it and how much it means to them. That’s what everybody asks of them, including the people that were making light of it or that had a problem with it. They want it to mean everything to these people and call them out when it doesn’t.”

“Here’s a guy that did lay it all out on the line and he’s reacting to the end of his season and career. And he gets mocked, which is ridiculous. A joke. People should have been celebrating it, the year that this guy had. It had to go down in the annals as one of the greatest single season individual performances in college basketball.”

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    American Reality

    If you ask Chante Hood, there is no way her family’s story can have a fairytale ending at this point. Not after everything she’s been through with her husband, Antoine. Not after all the sleep they’ve lost and the time spent apart. The sacrifices they’ve made. The tears they’ve shed. A happy ending, yes, but even a guaranteed contract with an NBA team won’t erase the memories.

    “Perfect is so gone,” she says.

    Antoine Hood, now 32, has been through more in his 32 years on this earth than most people can handle in a lifetime. He beat cancer when he was a teenager, served his country with honor and saw the world in his 20s. He’s a devoted father, husband and mentor.

    And it’s not like he can’t play. After an all-conference career at the Air Force Academy, one in which he led the Falcons into the top 25 and the NCAA Tournament, he played 50 games in the D-League with the Colorado 14ers in the 2006-07 season. But Air Force grads are required to serve as active duty officers for five years after graduation. The Department of Defense has an out for athletes with professional aspirations: they can apply for a waiver for an early release from their commitment as long as they serve for six years in the reserves.

    Hood — unlike Air Force grads Chad Hall and Ben Garland, both of whom played in the NFL, and Hood’s former teammate Jacob Burtschi, who graduated a year after him — could not get excused from his commitment. Instead, he was given 300 days of leave, giving him the opportunity to attend camp with the Denver Nuggets and suit up for the 14ers for a season. He was not allowed to receive a call-up to the NBA, however, and when those 300 days were up, he did his duty and served more than three years of active duty. That ended six years ago. He’s now a reservist, able to sign a pro contract and play full-time, professional basketball. He’s been to the Czech Republic, to Venezuela, to a handful of camps with NBA and D-League teams.

    Hood last played for a team in Canada’s NBL nearly a year ago, but he still works out two to three times a day on his own, despite having a day job, a wife and two sons. He traveled to New Mexico and Los Angeles in the last month to try and showcase his game to NBA scouts. He recently worked out with John Lucas in Houston.

    He’s still doing all the right things, but journeyman 32-year olds who can’t find any professional team to latch onto rarely, if ever, land an NBA contract. “Lots of people want to be NBA players,” one NBA executive told me. “Most don’t get to be.”

    In other words, it’s not an ideal world. Antoine Hood probably isn’t going to get the chance he’s earned.

    At what point do you give up on your American Dream and live your American Reality?

    * * *

    The Hoods now live in Shreveport, La., where Antoine works for the Air Force Strike Command Reserve and Chante is a freelance marketing director for local non-profits.

    But their story began 400 miles to the east, in Mobile, Ala., where Chante met Antoine at a Mardi Gras party. When they met, Antoine had graduated from the Academy, played a season in the D-League — he averaged 8.0 points and 2.5 assists in 50 games with the Colorado 14ers in 2006-07 — and was serving his mandatory active duty with the Air Force. Their first conversation involved Antoine proudly talking about his time at “The Academy,” which Chante, the daughter of a police officer, couldn’t wrap her head around. Where she’s from, the Academy is the school where the troublemakers, the “kids that didn’t do the right things,” were sent.

    Antoine was able to clear that up, and since then, they’ve spoken every day. They were married later that year and now have two sons, ages five and two.

    In 2009, Antoine had finished his active duty requirement and was enlisted in the reserves, meaning that after three years out of the game — three years of putting himself through two-a-days while on military bases everywhere from Alabama to Germany — he was once again free to chase his dreams.

    He got into training camp with the Miami Heat in 2009. That didn’t pan out, but he did manage to land a contract with a team in the Czech Republic, averaging 16.8 points per game during the 2009-10 season. But when he got back stateside, the playing opportunities once again dried up.

    That’s when the real grind started, as Hood did not play a second of professional basketball during the 2010-11 season.

    “There were nights where we don’t know where our next meal is coming from,” Chante said. “Having to wait on food stamps, for an academy grad? I just don’t understand it. People don’t see that. People aren’t willing to work after hard knocks. We are still willing to work for it.”

    Antoine eventually got a job selling tires for Michelin in North Carolina, but he was still chasing the NBA dream — only now, instead of pregnant Chante helping rebound for him, she was doing it in between dirty diapers. That’s how it worked for the Hoods. Chante was unwavering in her support of her husband’s dream — “I married into this,” she likes to say — but at this point, even her faith was being tested.

    It wasn’t that she didn’t believe in him.

    She just couldn’t take the heartache of another promise being broken, of seeing her husband crushed when a tryout fell through or a roster spot didn’t pan out.

    “I remember one night, I had it set in my mind to tell him, ‘Look, I can’t be one of the supporters, I can’t do this anymore emotionally,'” Chante said. “‘It’s too much. It’s too much on you, it’s too much hoping for something that’s never going to come.'”

    She decided to wait, going to work the next morning while mentally preparing herself for a discussion that she was dreading. That evening, a chilly December night, on the way home from work, her phone rang. It was Antoine.

    “Coach Popovich called me,” he said, “and he’s flying me out on Wednesday.”

    Three days later, Antoine was gone, off to training camp with the San Antonio Spurs.

    He’d last eight days before getting cut, playing in one preseason game. He saw 3:07 of action, scoring one point and committing one turnover. That game came against the Rockets, who counted a then-little-known Harvard grad on their preseason roster, a point guard by the name of Jeremy Lin. Lin would eventually wind up playing for the New York Knicks.

    Hood was cut on Dec. 18th of the lockout-shortened season. Exactly two months later, Linsanity was gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated for the second straight week.

    “Why couldn’t I wind up in New York?” Antoine wonders. Lin’s success only further drove home the idea that all he needed was a chance, was one team to believe in him. “We were on the same court. How did he outperform me?”

    “The emotional toll of it all has been unreal,” Chante said. “I just don’t know anybody that would be able to stand by their husband through this.”

    Hood is still waiting for that chance. After he was cut by the Spurs, Antoine spent a month playing for a team in Venezuela. He played 17 games, averaging 3.1 points, for the Idaho Stampede in the D-League in 2013-14. He lasted a handful of games with the Mississauga Power in the NBL (Canada) last season.

    “You have to be a good player in a non-NBA league to have a shot to make the NBA,” another NBA executive said. In other words, you have to prove your worth. Antoine hasn’t had the chance to do that, not recently.

    His dedication, however, has never wavered.

    “When our younger son (was born),” Chante says, “‘Toine only stayed for a day because he was playing for the D-League in Idaho.”

    “I had a C-section, so it (was) unbelievably tough,” she added. “I had to recover without him and have our (older) son there because I wanted to see (Antoine) succeed in this. I didn’t want him worrying about me back at home. I wanted him to be focused on what he set out to do.”

    If you were to call the Hoods crazy for the way they’ve chosen to live their life, you wouldn’t be the first to do so.

    “If I had a dollar for every time that someone told me I’m crazy, I’d be a billionaire,” Antoine said. “That’s how often people shake their head in disbelief.”

    * * *

    [parallax src=”” height=600 credit=”Getty Images”]

    Antoine Hood is an unusually determined man, even in the face of nearly insurmountable odds. It’s because he’s been there before. His drive comes from something deeper, something older and more elemental.

    Something that isn’t a happy memory for him.

    When he was 13, he woke up with a knot the size of a golf ball on his head, next to his ear lobe. He was diagnosed with malignant lymphoma. Doctors told him his life expectancy was four months.

    “The days were terrible,” he says, but he wasn’t about to sit there and let cancer ravage him. He had no plans of sitting around, waiting to die. “I am a survivor. I’ve been through chemo. I’ve been through radiation. I’ve had spinal taps. I’ve taken a million drugs and been pissing blue and green. I’ve been sleeping all day and just to have the energy to get up and walk around is something that you long for. The smell of hospitals, I’m so cool on the smell of hospitals.”

    “I could lose everything I have today and be on welfare, and I’m still going to find a way to make it,” he added. “Because I’ve been to a place where I was physically unable to do anything.”

    The memory that is seared into Antoine’s mind from that time, more than anything, is how often he went through roommates while he was at the Children’s Hospital. It wasn’t because those kids kept getting better, which is a harsh reality to face when you’re a 13-year-old kid with a cancer fight of your own.

    “I think that’s why my outlook on life is not similar to others,” he said. “I don’t want to be too presumptuous to say that your attitude is directly tied to your treatments, but I think history has proven there is a serious, strong correlation to that.”

    If he’s not going to fight for himself, if he doesn’t believe in his ability to beat the odds, who will?

    * * *

    “Everything I’ve been told since I was a kid was the American Dream,” Hood said. “Go to school, get good grades, work hard, and you’ll get everything you want. But is that the truth? Because I’m not living it right now.”

    He’s grinding out a 9-to-5 paycheck while paying his own way to fly around the country, paying out of his own pocket for workouts with people that maybe, just maybe, will have influence enough to bring up his name with someone that might be able to give him a shot at getting into a training camp.

    He doesn’t have teams knocking down his door. He doesn’t even have an agent.

    And he doesn’t understand why that’s the case.

    “I’ve served my country to protect the freedom of every general manager and player. I’ve done that,” he said. “I’ve made the ultimate sacrifice to lay down my life for this country. I went to one of the top schools in this country. I got the good grades. I’ve not been in jail for drugs or domestic violence or DUI. I’ve got a family. I’m a husband, a father, a mentor. I go to church. I’m doing everything you’re supposed to do as a person, as an American, and yet, I’m still coming up short. Why?”

    “What is it that I don’t have that I need?”

    Sports are big business. Winning pays. And while we’d like to believe that the quality of an athlete’s character matters as much as their ability on the court, it’s just not true. Being a good person will increase marketability, but being a bad person isn’t going to cost a player their job, not if they’re good enough.

    In the sports world, good things happen to bad people when they’re talented. Every single day.

    There are great people that happen to be professional athletes, but the one thing that every pro with a contract has in common is that their talent outweighs their off-the-court issues. That’s what matters. That’s capitalism at its finest.

    And the result is that good people like Antoine Hood are forced to come face-to-face with that American Reality.

    Fifty shades of Grayson

    Grayson Allen’s recruitment to Duke began with a pair of duct-taped shoes and a red-eye flight to Richmond, but to understand the significance of his patched up footwear, you need to understand where Allen stood compared to the elite recruits in his class in the summer of 2012.

    At that time, Allen was getting looked at by the likes of North Florida and other low-major programs near his Jacksonville home, but on a national scale, he was a nobody at a point in his high school career when most All-American caliber recruits have already been identified, over-analyzed and, in too many cases, corrupted.

    He was the breakout star of the 2015 national championship game and the 2014 McDonald’s All-American dunk contest champ, but in the summer before his junior season in high school, Allen was still e-mailing coaches to try to get them to come watch him play during the July live-period.

    “When I was in ninth grade, when I really started getting recruited [by smaller schools], I sat down and had a talk with one of my high school coaches,” Allen told me. “We were just talking about the recruitment process and how to handle it. He asked me where my dream school was and I told him Duke.”

    “He laughed at me.”

    * * *

    It wasn’t the dogpile with his teammates when the final buzzer sounded. It wasn’t seeing his dunk on One Shining Moment, or facing the crush of reporters that comes with being in a winning locker room.

    For Grayson Allen, the moment that the reality set in that he had scored 16 points and ignited the comeback in Duke’s title game victory over Wisconsin was when he got back to his hotel room and turned on SportsCenter.

    “The TV was on and they played the highlights from the national championship game, and it was then that I was like, ‘Dang, I can’t even believe that this just happened,'” Allen said. “During the game you don’t realize it at all. You’re just out there playing and the fact that you won a national championship doesn’t really hit you.”

    At the time, his biggest takeaway from seeing those highlights was that, “I look really short out there.” What he didn’t realize, however, was just how much things were going to change for him. Suddenly, he didn’t blend in on campus anymore. Prior to the title game, Allen could walk from class to class without being bothered. If he was with one of the team’s stars — Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, Tyus Jones — he might get the old, “Oh, aren’t you on the team, too?”

    But after the title game?

    Everyone knew who he was.

    “I went from kind of blending in on campus to being recognized with people congratulating me,” Allen said. “Even when I went back home at the start of the summer, I had people recognizing me and congratulating me.”

    And in a weird way, that’s a good thing for Allen, because the role he’s going to be asked to play as a sophomore will be much different than the one he played as a freshman. Allen is wholeheartedly representative of what college basketball at the highest level is trending towards these days. He’s a veteran presence on this Duke team, a leader in the locker room because he’s been through a few battles at the college level. He’s also a sophomore who was so buried on the depth chart that he didn’t play more than eight minutes in a game against a high-major opponent until Jan. 31.

    That came three days after he took a DNP-CD at Notre Dame, and it only happened because Rasheed Sulaimon was kicked off the team.

    Compared to, say, Brandon Ingram and Derryck Thornton, two of Duke’s four five-star freshmen this season, Allen is quite experienced. But he really doesn’t have all that much experience to speak of.

    “It’s weird that I’m only a sophomore and I feel this way, but you kind of have to be when there’s only four guys with game experience returning,” Allen said. “I’m just kind of getting put into that role, and I think I’m ready for it.”

    It’s interesting talking with Allen about what he spent the summer trying to improve. Like every other player in the country, he’s got some stock answers in the holster. He’s worked on his ball-handling. He’s gotten stronger. He’s developing his mid-range game and learning when to put his head down and attack vs. when to pull-up or give the ball up. Standard stuff.

    But he also gave this nugget: “To get out of my comfort zone a little bit and become more of a leader, become more vocal out there.”

    Allen is a quiet kid by nature, a lead-by-example kind of guy. In the locker room after Duke won the national title, every single member of the program — players, coaches, walk-ons, water boys — praised Allen’s effort in practice, saying that more often than not, he was the best player on the court behind closed doors. Justise Winslow said that everyone on the team hated when they were matched up with Allen in practice because “he’s been so aggressive, he’s been a dog.” Coach K affectionately referred to Allen the practice player as an “a–hole”. Assistant coach Nate James said Allen was “putting on shows all year in practice,” and that no one in that program was surprised when he burst onto the national scene the way that he did.

    That’s a terrific quality to have, but doing it while remaining mute is not going to work when he’s being asked to step into a leadership role at Duke, not when he’s playing for a coach in Mike Krzyzewski that prioritizes communication. And while Allen has a long way to go before he’s Quinn Cook, the early returns are promising.

    “It’s night and day between where he is now and when he first stepped foot on campus, because he would hardly say anything when he first arrived,” James said. “He has opened up so much more. He’s more engaging. He’s quicker to speak his mind. It doesn’t have to be a long winded monologue or anything, but he speaks his mind at the appropriate times.”

    * * *

    The first person to discover Grayson Allen was Harry Douglas Sr.

    Douglas, at the time, ran the Douglas Brothers Elite AAU program, named after his sons Harry Jr., a wide receiver for the Tennessee Titans, and Toney, a point guard for the Indiana Pacers. The previous summer, Douglas’ program, based in Georgia, had played against Allen in a small tournament in Jacksonville. Douglas was running late, so he asked his assistant to step in and coach.

    “When I got there, I said, ‘Why are we down 15?’ He said, ‘You see that white boy?’ and when I turned around, Grayson was doing a 360,” Douglas said.

    Douglas recruited Allen to join his program and eventually sold Allen’s family on the chance to play on a bigger stage. That July, Allen was scheduled to travel with Douglas Brothers to three tournaments in the Southeast. He tore up a Big Shots event in Myrtle Beach, S.C., the first weekend of the 2012 live period, which got him quite a bit of buzz nationally. The following weekend at Peach State — an event that’s held 20 minutes from the biggest event of the summer, Peach Jam — Allen once again went crazy. Suddenly, he was a national name who had some of the biggest programs in the country recruiting him.

    “I went from having maybe five offers to having 40 schools recruiting me all at once,” Allen said.

    Even with the increased attention, Allen was still holding out hope that Duke would come calling.


    It’s simple: The kid was a Duke fan. He grew up rooting for the Blue Devils. When he first started watching basketball, J.J. Redick was rising to stardom. When he was in eighth grade, he traveled to Indianapolis to see Duke win the 2010 national title. Duke is one of those teams — like the Cowboys, like the Yankees — that has a strong enough brand and enough national exposure that they have fans popping up all across the country.

    Allen was one of those fans.

    So while programs like Florida and Notre Dame came calling, Allen made it clear to anyone that asked that if he had the chance to go to Duke, he was going to Duke.

    The problem?

    No one on the Duke staff had even seen him play.

    “During that particular time, everyone else on the staff was out at USA Basketball, so I was holding the fort down,” James said. “I was going to see everyone we needed to see, and since I was the only one here, I had to really identify the key guys that we were looking for. At that time, Grayson was not one of them.”

    James was, however, aware that Allen loved Duke. And he was aware that Allen was putting on a show everywhere he went. His phone would blow up every time Allen took the court.

    “But I had my marching orders,” James said.

    The final weekend of that summer’s July period, Douglas Brothers Elite headed up to Richmond, Virginia, for another Big Shots event, but at this point in the summer, the team was gassed. Douglas Sr. has entered the team into two different fields meaning that, over the course of three days, the team, which was down to just six healthy players, had played 12 games.

    Allen, meanwhile, had blown out the stitching on the side of one of his shoes. Douglas Brothers Elite wasn’t playing on one of the shoe company circuits, meaning that the program wasn’t adorned with an endless array of Nike, Adidas or Under Armour gear. In other words, Allen didn’t have a replacement pair of shoes for his size 16 feet readily available.

    The team was set to head home a day early. The Allens were happy about it, too. Allen’s exposure was through the roof, his legs were wet noodles and he still had another year to prove to Duke he was worth a scholarship. July 2012 had been an overwhelming success.

    And then James called.

    “I got a hold of his coach and said, ‘Look, I’m going to catch a red-eye from Florida and come see him,'” James said. “I had to make a decision to miss the kid that I had to see to lay eyes on Grayson.”

    Allen knew that. He knew that James was changing his schedule specifically to get a chance to see him play on the final day of the summer; there weren’t any other kids at the event that Duke would have otherwise taken the time to see. He knew that he had to perform.

    And he knew that he had to do something about those shoes.

    “I had to tape it up just to go out and play,” Allen said. “Duke was there.”

    He wasn’t missing out on that opportunity.

    “No way.”

    The rest is history. Allen was dominant, and while the competition wasn’t all that impressive, James couldn’t help but walk out of that gym knowing that they had to make the kid a priority.

    “He’s on one of those little side baskets playing a ragged AAU team, mismatched jerseys and tops, and he was getting after it,” James says. “One thing that really stuck out to me, not just the athleticism, but how tough he was. They were going at him, trying to be physical with him. At that time, he started to have a little buzz. I was the only high-major in attendance, and [Duke coaches in attendance] typically makes everyone go a little harder. They were going after Grayson, but he was putting on an absolute show. He was driving, dunking, hitting threes, finishing through contact. It was without a doubt one of the best performances, regardless of tournament, regardless of class, that I saw that summer.”

    When Mike Krzyzewski got back from USA Basketball, he began corresponding with and recruiting Allen, who went on to win a state title as a junior. The Blue Devils offered him in April of his junior year.

    “It was like five days later I committed,” Allen said.

    * * *

    There’s never been a question of whether or not Grayson Allen had the ability to be a star. Not in high school and not at the college level.

    For Allen, the issue has been confidence. When he plays with it, he does things like score 27 points in a win over Wake Forest or put 16 on Wisconsin in the national title game. When he doesn’t, he’s the guy who loses Coach K’s trust on gameday.

    “He was putting pressure on himself. When he would get into games, he was a little hesitant. He just wanted it so bad,” James said. “When we got into that [Final Four] environment, he didn’t come off the bench like a kid who had never done anything that year. He didn’t come in like a kid who didn’t have confidence.”

    “Grayson is one of those kids you just turn loose,” Douglas said.

    This season, confidence shouldn’t be the issue. Allen, after all, is going to get plenty of playing time. He has managed to work his way into the first round of many mock drafts. He knows how good he can be. His team knows how good he can be. We do, too.

    The key this year will be making sure he doesn’t fall into the trap of success, that he doesn’t start to believe he’s “failing” if he doesn’t perform every game the way he did on that Monday night in Indianapolis. The staff doesn’t want him worrying about living up to his hype.

    “He understands that he still has a ways to go in his development,” James said. “Just be the best that you can be every day [and] your legacy won’t be one of, ‘oh, you had that moment in the championship your freshman year.'”

    “There’s no pressure on [him] to continue with the folklore of Grayson Allen.”

    All for one

    LOS ANGELES — Twenty minutes.

    That’s how long it took UCLA head coach Steve Alford, after one of the most memorable and controversial finishes in recent NCAA Tournament history, to bring it up. His team had just landed an upset win over No. 6 SMU in the Round of 64 of the 2015 NCAA Tournament after his son, star point guard Bryce Alford, made a go-ahead 3-pointer in the final seconds.

    Well, “made.”

    You remember the play.

    Was it above the rim? Did it have a chance to go in? Did the officials make the right call? A goaltend? With 10.9 seconds left? To decide the game? Seriously?!?

    That’s what every single person with a bracket or a blog was asking. That’s not what Steve Alford was concerned about, however. He was happy with the win, he wouldn’t trade that in for anything, but he wanted to make sure his son knew one thing: that last 3-pointer, Bryce’s ninth of the game?

    It didn’t actually go in the basket.

    “This is how competitive our family is,” Bryce said with a laugh during an interview on UCLA’s Westwood campus last month. Those nine 3s were a career-high for Bryce. It also happened to be a record for the Alford family, as Steve had never made more than eight in a game. “He said something maybe 20 minutes after the game was over.”

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    This is what happens when you’re a basketball family, when dad is one of the best college basketball players of all-time and son is one of the best players currently on a college roster.

    “The dad in me says he only made eight,” Steve explained later on. “The coach in me says the ninth he made against SMU — which never went in — I’ve got to give him credit for or we wouldn’t advance. I told him that afterward, ‘Look, the most I ever made was eight. You only made eight in this game, but you got credit for nine. I don’t know if you’re really ahead.'”

    “He makes sure I know only eight went through the hoop,” Bryce added. “At the end of the day, nine was on the stat sheet.”

    * * *


    Ask UCLA fans about Bryce Alford, about why he plays the minutes that he does and gets the shots that he does, and that’s usually the answer that you’ll get. He’s the coach’s son. Of course he’s going to get those touches. Of course he’s going to play those minutes.

    Never mind that he averaged 15.4 points and 4.9 assists while shooting 39.1 percent from beyond the arc as a sophomore. Forget that he averaged 8.0 points and 2.8 assists as a freshman while playing on a team that included Zach LaVine, Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams and Norman Powell. He’s won 50 games in two seasons with the Bruins. He has a Pac-12 tournament title ring and two trips to the Sweet 16 under his belt.

    That’s a pretty good two-year stretch for anyone, let alone a sophomore who was supposed to spend his career in the Mountain West.

    “In this day and age you’re going to see it,” Bryce said of the criticism he gets. “It’s kind of hard not to. As a 20-year-old kid, you’re going to hear about it and see it and people are going to say some stuff to you, but that’s something that I’ve had to learn, to have it go in one ear and out the other. That’s something that my dad and my grandpa have been really good about helping me understand.”

    “Those voices don’t matter. At the end of the day, you go out and play. People on the sidelines, people on Twitter, it doesn’t matter what they say. They have no impact on how the game is going to go.”

    The criticism for Team Alford is centered in the idea that, on a roster stocked with pros, it’s Bryce that gets key minutes at the point and gets his name called in crunch time. And there is some legitimacy in that. In 2013-14, six of the eight players in UCLA’s rotation are now NBA players. This past season, UCLA sent Kevon Looney to the first round of the draft, got Norman Powell a partially guaranteed contract with the Raptors and, depending on how things shake out this year, could end up sending Thomas Welsh, Tony Parker and Isaac Hamilton to the next level as well.

    That criticism didn’t only come from the fans, either. Part of the reason that LaVine left for the NBA after his freshman season was that he and his family believed that he would be forced to play off the ball in favor of Bryce.

    “[Steve Alford’s] done a great job getting the players to compete,” LaVine’s godfather, Marvin Carter, told the LA Daily News at the time. “I just wish Zach had more of a chance to compete. Every year he spends at UCLA after this one is a waste. It really is.”

    To his credit, Bryce is aware of that dynamic. “There might be times where somebody finds it weird having the coach’s son on the team,” he said. “And the role that I have, I played pretty much every minute last year and obviously there’s going to be, I don’t know if jealousy is the right word, but there’s definitely going to be some stuff there.” He’s conscious of what it looks like if, say, he’s getting ripped into at a practice and he calls the coach ‘Dad.’

    But he doesn’t want to call his dad ‘coach’, either.

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    “They wait to get eye contact with me to ask a question other than having to say coach,” Steve said, chuckling.

    But there’s also another layer to this: Are we so sure there’s no future for him at the next level? The new trend in the NBA is small-ball, right? An uptempo-style of play that emphasizes spreading the floor and three-point shooting? Steve Nash and Steph Curry are the two catalysts of this style of play — both won MVPs in the last decade, and Curry is coming off of an NBA title — and it’s not difficult to see the similarities between Bryce’s game and that of Nash and Curry.

    He can handle the ball. He can beat people off the dribble. He can create for his teammates. And, since he’s an Alford, he can really, really shoot.

    “A lot of people tell me that’s what my game reflects,” Bryce said. “The way [Curry] plays. I watch a lot of tape of him, old Steve Nash, Kyrie working off ball-screens, Chris Paul.”

    Nash and Curry weren’t ever expected to be as good as they’ve been in the NBA. They worked. And worked. And worked. And, eventually, they developed into players that have literally changed the way the game is play.

    Is Bryce ever going to be that good? Probably not, but remember, he doesn’t even turn 21 until January. He’s got a long way to go before he’s done.

    * * *

    Bryce always knew that he was eventually going to play for his dad in college. Steve played for his dad when he was in high school back in New Castle, Ind., winning the state’s Mr. Basketball award and getting named to the 1984 Olympic team after averaging 37.7 points as a senior. When Steve’s playing career came to a close, his father — Sam — spent nine seasons as an assistant on his staff. Kory Alford, Bryce’s older brother, spent four seasons playing for their father as a walk-on, enrolling at New Mexico when Steve was still the head coach there, and Bryce figured that, one way or another, he’d end up doing the same thing.

    He was going to be a coach’s son.

    Because that’s just what Alfords do.

    “That’s all I really knew,” Bryce said. “I experienced that being around his teams and his players always kind of took me in and I just wanted to be a part of that.”

    At the time that Kory enrolled at New Mexico, Bryce was entering his junior season in high school. He’d had a successful career to that point, good enough that it was obvious he was going to be playing basketball in college but not yet clear just what kind of role he would play. Was he destined to follow in his brother’s footsteps — a practice player who was using his college eligibility as a way to prep for a career in coaching — or did he have a real chance to make an impact at that level?

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    The answer to that question became obvious during the 2011-12 season. Bryce had not only grown to 6-foot-3, but he was bucking the mold of an Alford. Steve and Kory were known as shooters, guys that played off the ball and relied on a shooting stroke to overcome relatively limited physical gifts.


    “He’s a lot more athletic with much better feet than I ever had,” Steve said. “He can create things on his own like I couldn’t do.”

    Bryce figured that out as well. That realization that he wasn’t his father — that he didn’t have to follow in his footsteps, that he was his own player putting in his own work and writing his own story — was the best thing that ever happened to Bryce. “In high school, I felt [the pressure of being an Alford] a lot. In my early years, I was trying too hard to be my dad,” he said. “I started to figure out my junior year that I was my own player.”

    “I started trying to be the best that I could be instead of trying to be what he was or what people want me to be.”

    That new mindset combined with a bigger, stronger, more athletic body changed the trajectory of Bryce’s career. Suddenly, he wasn’t just an Alford putting up solid numbers in a New Mexico high school league that isn’t exactly known for churning out future pros. He was a lead guard that was dominating his conference and primed to be recruited by some of the better programs in the country. While Bryce was still figuring out just how good he could be, Steve put the pieces together pretty quickly. His younger son was going to be recruited. He was going to be a factor in Division I basketball.

    And for Bryce, that college decision came down to one conversation with his dad early on in his junior year.

    “Should I go through the recruiting process?” Bryce asked. Dad was ready for it.

    “Hey, if you want to be recruited nationally, you’re doing things now where you’re going to come to the forefront and a lot of coaches are going to be calling,” he answered, laying out the pros and cons of being a coach’s kid and what it’s like to go through the recruiting process. “I can handle it one of two ways: I can open up your recruiting, and you can be recruited just like any other player, or if you know that you want to play here, you’re getting an offer right now from New Mexico and you can end this whole thing and just play for me.”

    It didn’t take Bryce more than a day or two to decide. He was going to play for his dad. They announced his commitment that March, and by the time he was a senior, Bryce was absolutely dominant. He set a state record by scoring 1,050 points in his final season in high school, averaging 37.7 points — the same as his dad — to go along with 8.3 boards and 6.5 assists.

    “What’s funny is that [his commitment] probably hurt his ranking,” Steve said. “People always say ‘he wasn’t ranked very high, he didn’t get any offers.'”

    “Well, there was a reason why.”

    * * *

    Before he was an all-conference player at the most prestigious program on the West Coast, before he was a record-setting scorer in the New Mexico high school ranks, before he was even competing in the family’s driveway shooting contests, Bryce Alford was just another child of a college coach wondering when his dad was going to come home.

    It’s not an easy job, coaching college basketball. The demands of the business necessitate weird hours, lots of travel and a seemingly endless amount of time sitting in a film room, trying to parse out just what makes a future opponent’s defense so effective or why a star big man hasn’t been able to get touches on the low block. There are road games and road trips. There are recruits to be scouted during the regular season, not to mention the AAU tournaments that take place during the live periods in April and July. There are practices to be planned and opponents to be prepared for. There are boosters that need to be schmoozed and media members that need their quotes.

    And that says nothing of the stress that comes with having to win games or lose your job, get recruits or get fired.

    Luckily for Alford, he’s never actually been fired. He’s been a head coach for each of the last 25 seasons, for every year he’s been a father. The rigors of raising a family in the business never really weighed on the Alford children because they didn’t know anything else. This was just how it was.

    “You’re kind of naive as a kid,” Bryce said. “You don’t really know everything that’s going on. There’s times where he was gone for a week on the road recruiting and you’re asking mom when he’s going to be back. What he’s doing, stuff like that.”

    “But it’s all I knew. I think if I had a time where he wasn’t a coach, and then he was a coach, it would have been different. Because I would have had him there and then I wouldn’t.”

    When Steve was in town, he made sure to have his family around as much as possible.

    “Kory went to the first 70 games I coached at Manchester College, home and on the road, and if you ask him he probably doesn’t remember any of them,” Steve said. “It’s just something that they grew up with, coming to practice, going to the gym. They learned to run around in there. That was their playground area.”

    The benefits were two-fold. On the one hand, Steve was able to create a family atmosphere within his program. His players got to know his kids. His kids got the chance to hang around the stars of the local basketball team. He was a family man in the eyes of the parents of the kids he was recruiting. He was even more of a hero to his kids while getting them to burn off that excess energy bouncing a ball instead of bouncing off of the walls of his family’s home.

    “I’m going to be a dad before anything else,” he said. “‘Dad’ is who I am and basketball coach is what I do.”

    There was an added bonus for the elder Alford. When your children consider a practice gym a playground, the odds are pretty good that they’ll grow up believing that “Ball Is Life.”

    “He could tell at at young age that I loved it,” said Bryce. “Always, from when I was a toddler, every picture I have I’ve got a little tiny ball in my hands. I was dribbling around his practices while he was coaching at Iowa and Missouri State. Even at New Mexico I would go up and start working out with them in high school.”

    Steve added that he learned from his father not to push the game on his children.

    “Always give them a ball and always give them a basket and advice when they want it,” he said. “But let them have the freedom to fall in love with it.”

    “And I think they fell in love with the game.”

    * * *


    Who’s the better shooter?

    “He’s known as one of the best shooters in college basketball, so I’m not there yet,” Bryce said. “But now? I can get him.”

    “He’s knocking on the door and I’ve told him he’s knocking on the door,” said Steve, who shot 53.0 percent from 3-point range in the one college season he played with a 3-point line. But he’s wrong.

    “There’s a lot of things I’ve given up,” Steve said.

    “But I’m not ready to give that up.”

    Higher Ames

    SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Georges Niang had every right to feel angry, to feel betrayed, when his head coach made the decision to depart Iowa State — the coach’s alma mater, his hometown school in a city where he’s known as the “Mayor” — to replace Tom Thibodeau as head coach of the Chicago Bulls.

    Fred Hoiberg is the man who brought Niang from a private high school in New England to a public university in central Iowa. He’s the coach who helped Niang shed some 25 pounds of baby fat, changing his body from that of a pudgy kid to a chiseled, soon-to-be-professional athlete. He’s the coach who spurred on Niang’s development from overlooked top 100 recruit to matchup nightmare, an unguardable All-American on a national title contender.

    Niang is entering his senior season. Iowa State is a preseason top-five team. Hoiberg is in Chicago.

    And in Ames, there isn’t even a hint of bitterness.

    “The fact that he gets to live out his dream and have his dream job with the Chicago Bulls, I couldn’t be more happy for him,” Niang told me at the Nike Basketball Academy last week, a statement that reads like smart PR, but, from Niang, couldn’t possibly sound more genuine. “How Coach Hoiberg treated us as men, and the respect that he showed all of us, you really couldn’t hold a grudge.”

    Hoiberg’s reputation during his five seasons at the collegiate level was built on his ability to connect with his players. He turned enigmatic talents like Royce White and DeAndre Kane to into All-Americans. He convinced shot-happy gunners like Bryce Dejean-Jones and Korie Lucious to buy into a role that not only made them more effective but also made their team better. He kept malcontents happy, surrounded them with leaders like Niang and Melvin Ejim and, as a result, turned Iowa State into a title contender.

    That didn’t change during his pursuit of another job, as Hoiberg kept the team as informed as possible throughout. He let them know the status of Chicago’s search, when he was expected to come to terms on a deal, when he was flying out to sign the contract. More importantly, he made sure his guys knew just how much this job meant to him.

    And when someone you care for that much has a chance to chase a dream, you can’t help but be happy for them.

    “He was real honest about it,” Niang said, “and as a player, you can really appreciate that. He’s like a dad to us, still checks in on us. And we love him and wish him nothing but the best.”

    “If we wanted to leave for the NBA, he would for sure stand behind us in anything that we wanted to do. That was our leader, but the fact that he had to move on and do something that was better for him, we had to respect that and, really, be happy for him that he had the opportunity to do something great.”

    For the Cyclones, the focus has already turned toward their future under new head coach Steve Prohm. Prohm spent the last nine years at Murray State, the last four as head coach. His record? 104-29, having reached the round of 32 in the 2012 NCAA Tournament and the second round of the NIT in 2015 in addition to winning the 2014 Tournament title. He helped develop Isaiah Canaan into a second-round pick who is still in the NBA. He identified, recruited and coached up Cameron Payne, turning him into the No. 14 pick in the NBA Draft in just two years.

    Prohm has proven capable of winning with the pieces he has on a roster. In 2012, when Murray State started the season 23-0 and won a game in the NCAA Tournament, Prohm’s Racers ranked 15th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to, thriving on their ability to force turnovers and defend the three. This past season was quite the opposite, as Prohm built an high-octane offense around Payne, finishing the year 13th in adjusted offensive efficiency as Murray State won 25 straight games at one point, coming within one heartbreaking Taylor Barnette jumper of an NCAA Tournament bid.

    That’s relevant, because Prohm is walking into a team that is already built for a run at snapping Kansas’ 11-year streak as Big 12 regular-season champions, as well as a trip to the Final Four. The Cyclones could very well end up starting four seniors and junior Monte’ Morris, who has spent the majority of his two years in Ames as the starting point guard, while bringing two juniors and a redshirt sophomore off the bench. Two of those eight rotation players — Morris and Niang — could end up being named Preseason All-Americans.

    In other words, this is an experienced group and not a team that needs to be over-coached or micromanaged. They could probably coach themselves to 25 wins in 2015-16.

    Prohm, according to Niang, gets that.

    “He told us, ‘I’m not trying to come in and reinvent the wheel,'” Niang said. “He wants to let us do some of the things that we did last year.”

    There will be some changes, however, particularly on the defensive end of the floor, which is something that Niang says Prohm has been “preaching every day.” The Cyclones finished 71st in adjusted defensive efficiency in 2014-15 and never had a top 50 defense under Fred Hoiberg, and it’s something that Niang is keenly aware of. His contribution? Becoming “a relentless rebounder”, “going after all loose balls” and “consistently making winning plays”. In other words, he’s trying to make a name for himself as more than just a matchup problem, as more than just a scorer.

    It seems like it’s working. One scout in Santa Monica last week referred to Niang as “the best screener in camp”.

    “We’ve gotten along real well,” Niang said of his team’s new coach. “He’s been in for two or three weeks now so we’ve gotten some workouts in. I really like him. He’s a great guy, and when it comes to basketball I feel like I can learn a lot from him in just one year.”

    He’s not the only player on the roster that believes in Prohm. Niang says he’s excited about future, but that excitement wasn’t immediate. Niang found out his school had hired a replacement on twitter, and his initial reaction to hearing that it was Prohm was … who?

    “It’s funny, I really didn’t know who he was until I looked him up and did some research on him,” Niang said. “We’ve had countless conversations, sitting down and talking, and I’ve really found a niche with him and a connection.”

    “I can pick his brain and develop as a player on the court and as a person off the court.”

    ‘If you win, there’s always another job’

    Numbers aren’t necessary. Ignore the Wikipedia page. Even Bruce Pearl’s previous accolades fail to edify readers about his coaching prowess.

    His brilliance isn’t defined by turning a moribund Tennessee program into the nation’s No. 1 team or to rally a fan base that cared about football first, second and third. It goes beyond that he took the Vols to the cusp of the Final Four; or that he got Milwaukee into the Sweet 16; or that he made Southern Indiana into a Division II powerhouse.

    All you need to know about Bruce Pearl is that, in 2015, he is coaching. And not as a superfluous assistant or at a remote program.

    He’s at Auburn, an SEC school. He was the most significant hire of last year’s coaching carousel, one that included heavy-hitters like Buzz Williams, Cuonzo Martin and Steve Wojciechowski.

    And it all happened despite the fact that Bruce Pearl has committed two coaching Cardinal sins and was hired while still serving the NCAA’s version of a jail time.

    * * *

    Tennessee fired Bruce Pearl for telling a lie about a cookout.

    It was Sept. 20, 2008, a college football Saturday that featured a visit from No. 4 Florida and their Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, Tim Tebow. The Gators put a 30-6 whooping on the Vols, as Tebow threw touchdown passes to Percy Harvin and Aaron Hernandez.

    Attending a Vols game is an incredible experience. More than 100,000 people (usually wearing the same color) converge on a single location after spending hours eating and drinking and trying to prove that their town — their school — has the best pregame and tailgate traditions. That’s why you see so many basketball recruits take official and unofficial visits coinciding with a big football weekend; being able to offer that kind of an atmosphere on every Saturday in the fall is a nice recruiting tool to have, and Pearl is far from the only coach to take advantage of it.

    On this particular Saturday in Knoxville, Pearl happened to have three high school juniors making unofficial visits to campus. Recruits are allowed to take five official visits beginning midway through their junior year in high school, in which the coaching staff can roll out the red carpet, covering flights and meals and hotels for the player and his family for the duration of their 48-hour trip. The same recruits are allowed as many unofficial visits as they’d like, but there are much more stringent rules on those: The families must pay their own way, they must pay for their own meals and they must pay for their own transportation while on campus. And as high school juniors, they’re not allowed to meet with the team or the staff off campus, and they’re certainly not allowed to visit the house of the head coach.

    That’s where the trouble started for Pearl. He hosted a barbecue at his house after the game, inviting the team and the coaching staff over. He also invited the those three unofficial visitors — former Tennessee guard Jordan McRae, former Ohio State guard Aaron Craft and former Kansas guard (and at the time, Tennessee-commit) Josh Selby — to his house.

    They came.

    Pearl must have known he was committing multiple violations — he was feeding them and having contact with them off campus, and current players gave two of the recruits a ride to his house — but he also warned the players and their families that their attendance was against NCAA rules.

    At some point during that barbecue, a picture was snapped of Pearl, in his kitchen, standing with Craft and the wife of assistant coach Jason Shay. A year later, the NCAA opened an investigation into Tennessee’s basketball program regarding the number of phone calls and text messages that they had sent to recruits, a rule that has since been changed. But during the process of looking into those calls and those texts, investigators stumbled upon that picture.

    On June 14, 2010, Pearl and each of his three assistants — Shay, Steve Forbes and Tony Jones — were asked about the picture during an interview with Joyce Thompson, one of the NCAA’s lead investigators.

    They lied, despite knowing almost a week prior to sitting down with the NCAA that the picture existed.

    “Have you, and I apologize, this is a grainy photo that we received in our office, and I received this through e-mail just to let you know,” Thompson asked Pearl, according to the NCAA’s Notice of Allegations sent to the university and obtained by the Knoxville News-Sentinel. “But, um, we received this picture and it purports to be you with Aaron Craft. Do you have any recollection of that incident or maybe where this picture was maybe taken from and …”

    “That’s Aaron,” Pearl said. “That’s me. I don’t really know where that’s taken.”

    “OK,” Thompson said. “Any place on campus but you don’t know?”

    “Do you recognize the woman that’s in the picture?” Mike Glazier, Tennessee’s lead attorney, asked Pearl, referring specifically to Shay’s wife.

    “No, I really don’t,” Pearl said.

    “Coach,” Glazier asked, “Is that in your home any place?”

    “No,” Pearl said.

    After bowing out of the 2011 NCAA tournament with a 30-point loss to Michigan in the opening round, Tennessee fired Pearl.

    * * *

    Auburn basketball is irrelevant. It has been for more than a decade. They haven’t made the NCAA tournament since 2003 and haven’t finished above .500 since 2009. They haven’t won an SEC regular-season title since 1999. They haven’t won an SEC tournament since 1985. But irrelevance doesn’t mean a program cannot be turned around; Tennessee was more or less irrelevant when Pearl took over, and his success with the Vols is one of the reasons that Auburn made him a priority.

    Sports fans are sports fans. College towns, particularly those in the south, love their school. And college kids? They’re worried as much about the party as they are the game. Do they need a reason beyond “the team is actually not that terrible this year” to get liquored up and spend a couple hours in the student section, heckling and cheering and taking selfies and simply enjoying the hell out of their time in college?

    Pearl recognizes this. He saw it in Tennessee, and he sees it in Auburn.

    [parallax src=”” height=600 credit=”(Associated Press)”]

    “It is a powerhouse in intercollegiate athletics. That was what was attractive,” Pearl told last month. “There’s a perception here. 2010, Cam Newton’s winning a national championship. 2013, Gus Malzahn is playing for a national championship. Tim Hudson [pitched] in the World Series [this year]. Jason Dufner, who won the PGA a couple years ago, lives in Auburn and walked on at Auburn. Charles Barkley. Frank Thomas. Bo Jackson. [Current Auburn assistant] Chuck Person. It’s here. It’s now. It’s not too recent history.”

    The way Pearl tells it — and believe me, he’s as good of a salesman as there is in the coaching business; he had me ready to look into getting an advanced degree from Auburn — irrelevant is the wrong word to use to describe Auburn basketball. Dormant is better. A sleeping giant. An SEC power just waiting for someone to tap into their potential. If anyone can do that, it’s Pearl.

    All it took was a matter of hours for him to prove it.

    When Pearl stepped off of the private plane at Auburn airport on March 18, the same day that the news broke that he would be taking the job, he was greeted by a mob of fans and reporters on the tarmac. There, just 20 feet and 10 seconds removed from the plane that brought the Boston native into the fathoms of the deep south, he proceeded to partake in a combination mosh-pit and group-hug with those fans, holding an impromptu press conference — or pep rally — before heading off to begin his rebuild:

    For the first time in more than a decade, there’s a feeling of excitement around Auburn hoops. Last year, the Tigers averaged just 5,823 tickets sold per game, a number that was second-to-last in the SEC (ignoring that fewer still actually stepped foot into Auburn Arena). It was the first season since moving into the venue that Auburn did not have a single sell-out.

    This season, the Tigers sold out their season tickets for the first time — prior to Pearl’s first game.

    And they’re not even good yet. Auburn is 12-14 overall and 4-9 in the SEC after Tuesday night’s loss to Alabama. On Saturday, the Tigers head to Rupp Arena to take their shot at ending Kentucky’s undefeated season.

    So yes, Pearl still has some work to do, but the on-court product is improving as the hype surrounding the program has reached unprecedented levels, at least compared to recent history.

    “The basketball program has been down the last 11 years,” Pearl said. “It’s been a struggle, but there’s history and tradition here.

    “We’re not trying to do something that hasn’t been done. We’re just trying to do something that hasn’t been done in a while.”

    It’s not only the fans that are getting excited about the program, the recruits are as well. Since arriving at Auburn, Pearl has landed highly regarded transfers (K.C. Ross-Miller, Antoine Mason, Kareem Canty), a top five junior-college recruit (Cinmeon Bowers) and a combined four four-star recruits in this recruiting class (Trayvon Reed) and the Class of 2015 (Horace Spencer, Nu Williams, Danjel Purifoy).

    That’s a lot of talent for any coach to land, but Pearl did it despite spending his first five months as Auburn’s head coach unable to do any kind of recruiting, waiting for his show-cause penalty to expire. A show-cause penalty, the harshest reprimand the NCAA can give to a coach, is exactly what it sounds like. If a school wants to hire a coach while he’s serving his show-cause — Pearl’s penalty was for three years and ended in August 2014 — they have to appear in front of the NCAA Committee on Infractions and literally “show cause” to hire that coach. It’s not an easy process, and few programs believe it is worth the time and the effort to make that hire, turning the penalty into a de facto suspension. Even if the coach is hired, he’ll be forced into reduced responsibilities with limits on his ability to recruit, which is arguably the most important part of being a college coach.


    He couldn’t scout players. He couldn’t travel to the games Auburn targets were playing. He couldn’t talk to recruits on the phone or tweet at them. He couldn’t even say hello when they came to campus to visit, often times returning to his Knoxville home just to play it safe.

    “It was really challenging. I had not laid my own eyes on any of these guys,” Pearl said.

    Auburn built up all of that recruiting momentum despite the fact that their head coach, the guy that the school will now pay $2.2 million-per-year to recruit and promote and rebuild, had zero involvement until Aug. 24, well after the all-important April and July live-periods.

    That’s why Pearl was the most significant coaching hire last spring.

    * * *

    The worst thing that a coach can do during an NCAA investigation is get caught in a lie.

    A simple and unavoidable byproduct of the way the system is setup is that the NCAA’s enforcement arm is forced to hand out extreme punishments when someone being investigated is caught lying to them. The NCAA doesn’t have any subpoena power. They can’t force anyone to talk under oath, and they can’t force anyone to talk that isn’t affiliated with any NCAA member.

    It limits the association’s investigative ability, which is why they are willing to drop the hammer if they do catch someone doing something other than telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

    Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant missed the final 10 games of his collegiate career at Oklahoma State, a season when he was considered a Heisman Trophy candidate. He was asked by NCAA investigators about a visit he had with Deion Sanders, one in which they worked out and ate lunch, which Bryant paid for. Neither is an NCAA violation, but Bryant, fearing that he had committed one, lied to investigators.

    He was declared ineligible.

    Brad Greenberg learned this the hard way. Back in 2010-11, the former Radford coach had a player named Masse Doumbe ruled ineligible after he spent time playing with a club team in France where one player — not Doumbe — was getting paid. He was suspended for 21 games and not allowed to travel with the team on road trips. During Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks, instead of leaving Doumbe alone on campus, Greenberg allowed him to travel and eat with the team, which is against NCAA rules.

    Greenberg lied about it. He asked members of his staff and other student-athletes to lie about it. He was fired, and when the NCAA completed their investigation, given a five-year show-cause penalty.

    Think about the violations committed here.

    Pearl had some high school kids over for a team barbecue. Bryant had lunch and worked out with one of the NFL’s all-time greats. Greenberg allowed a suspended player to travel with the rest of his team.

    Combined, those three lost a total of nine seasons in college.

    * * *

    Bruce Pearl was once thought of as one of college basketball’s brightest young stars, named by Basketball Weekly as one of the nation’s best Division I assistant coaches in 1988. That he eventually worked his way to the highest rungs of the collegiate coaching ladder, donning orange blazers and winning SEC championships while banking seven figures annually, is not something that would have surprised anyone during Pearl’s early years in the business.

    But instead of climbing that ladder, Pearl found himself stuck in the Division II ranks for nine years, better-known as basketball purgatory for a coach on the rise. Instead of nationally televised games and massive recruiting budgets and chartered flights around the country, Pearl was winning titles while riding a bus from Southern Indiana’s Evansville campus to the midwestern towns of Kenosha, Wisconsin, and Quincy, Illinois, trips that often took seven or eight hours.

    He had been blackballed from the business.

    That’s what happens when you get labeled a snitch.

    “There’s kind of an unspoken rule in the business where if another staff does stuff, you try to talk to the guy,” one top 25 head coach top “You don’t ruin his career. You don’t turn somebody in.”

    Back in the late-1980s, when Pearl was still a hotshot, 20-something assistant coach at Iowa, he began recruiting a kid named Deon Thomas. At the time, Thomas was the best player in Chicago and a soon-to-be McDonald’s All-American, a 6-foot-8 forward that played at the same Simeon Career Academy that also produced Derrick Rose, Jabari Parker, Nick Anderson, Ben Wilson and Bobby Simmons.

    Everyone wanted him, but it was Iowa, according to Pearl, that had landed a verbal commitment. And it was also Iowa that eventually lost out on Thomas, as he wound up following a pair of former high school teammates to Champaign to play for Illinois; he’d eventually become the program’s all-time leading scorer, a record he still holds, and a top-30 pick in the NBA Draft.

    That all happened in the spring of 1989, but it was months earlier, in December of 1988, when Pearl began to suspect that Illinois’ recruitment of Thomas was not on the up-and-up. With the blessing of his head coach Tom Davis and Iowa’s athletic administration, Pearl began recording conversations with Thomas and taking notes on what the player told him, things that could eventually get Illinois hit with NCAA recruiting violations.

    He eventually wrote a 10-page memo drafted for his superiors and, years later, obtained by Deadspin that detailed everything Thomas had told him, from the mundane — talking with the player after a game, illegal in-home visits, and, ironically enough, meals off campus — to the spectacular. Pearl accused Illinois assistant coach Jimmy Collins of giving Thomas $80,000 and a Chevy Blazer in exchange for signing a letter of intent.

    His proof?

    One of those recorded phone conversations, which included Thomas confirming that Collins had made the offer.

    Pearl turned all of this information over to the NCAA, and while the allegations regarding the cash and the car were never proven, Illinois was hit with a few major violations. That earned the athletic department a repeat violator tag, stemming from some football violations, and the basketball team a one-year postseason ban.

    Serving as the NCAA’s whistleblower is bad enough, but recording phone conversations may be even worse. The conversations that are held within the privacy of a coaching staff, particularly one at that level, are not always, shall we say, compliant with NCAA regulations. There’s a certain trust that goes into that side of the business, that same top-25 head coach explained, that things that get discussed amongst the staff stay amongst the staff. They don’t want their strategies, particularly ones that violate NCAA bylaws, getting discussed in public, and they certainly don’t want to have to be concerned about a recording of them showing up on SportsCenter one morning.

    It all comes back to trust, and Pearl had broken his with seemingly all of the coaching community.

    “There’s a lot of guys that wouldn’t appreciate that,” the coach said.

    * * *

    So why, if he’s not trustworthy and a cheater that lies to the NCAA, is Bruce Pearl still coaching?

    “Because he wins,” the head coach of another top-25 program told “There’s a saying: ‘Don’t get fired for losing. Get fired for cheating.’

    “If you win, there’s always another job.”

    And if there’s anything that Pearl has done throughout his career, it’s win. In 19 seasons as a head coach, Pearl has won at least 20 games in 17 of them. He’s never finished below .500 in league play — ever — and the only year he didn’t win at least 10 games in conference was his final season at Tennessee; he was suspended for the first eight games of SEC play that year.

    [parallax src=”” height=600 credit=”(Associated Press)”]

    No one knows about Pearl’s winning ways better than Auburn, which sat idly by as he turned Tennesse into a national power. It’s not a coincidence that he was their first call once Tony Barbee was fired.

    According to Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs, the decision to hire Bruce Pearl hinged on his belief that Pearl’s show-cause penalty was the result of a mistake, a bad decision made at an inopportune time, a lie told in the heat of the moment. Pearl had to make him believe.

    “I went right at him with the questions of lying to the NCAA,” Jacobs said of the interview, which took place late on a Friday night in a hotel room. “He sat there and looked at me with tears in his eyes and expressed his remorse for doing it and told me the entire story. Took probably 20-25 minutes. When he was through telling me the story and talking about the pain and the hurt that he and his family had gone through, I knew that he was remorseful and he had repented, and I knew that it wasn’t a character flaw. He had made a mistake.”

    But it wasn’t really that simple.

    Pearl is a master dealing with the media, and in the wake of what happened with Thomas, Pearl branded himself as the de facto spokesman for Coaches That Don’t Cheat. The reason that he risked his career to turn in a colleague that beat him for a recruit wasn’t selfish or self-serving, it was because he had to do what’s right. The way he told it, over and over again, was that he couldn’t sit idly by and allow another program to break NCAA rules when he knew about it.

    And then, he not only was caught breaking those rules, he lied about it to the NCAA’s investigators.

    “I have been a very public advocate for playing by the rules,” Pearl said back in November of 2010, when his eight-game SEC suspension was announced. “When you don’t play by the rules, these are the things that can happen.”

    On Sept. 10, 2010, Pearl delivered his tearful apology to the Tennessee faithful, a press conference where he came clean about the violations he had committed and the lies he had told. He was admitting his mistakes, making himself the sacrificial lamb.

    Pearl had learned his lesson, or so he wanted every one to believe.

    Four days later, according to the notice of allegations that the NCAA sent Tennessee, on Sept. 14th, Pearl and assistant coach Tony Jones met with former UCLA guard Jordan Adams for two-to-three minutes at Oak Hill Academy, Adams’ high school. Adams was a junior at the time, which made the visit a clear violation of NCAA rules.

    “It really showcases in my mind what the NCAA is all about,” Collins, who remained at Illinois until 1996 before taking over the Illinois-Chicago program for 14 years, told Deadspin last year when Pearl was first hired at Auburn, “and that is not much of nothing.”

    “I always thought [Bruce] was smart, in terms of basketball, but he is also smart in winning people over. That was one of his strengths. But the NCAA, which preaches sportsmanship, and good citizenship, which preaches the way you do the kids — where if the kid talks or shakes a hand, you may not let him play for a year — and then you turn your back on some of the other stuff that goes on, because a guy wins games.”

    Devils in the details

    Miami head coach Jim Larrañaga had quite a bit to say this week after his Hurricanes knocked off No. 4 Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium, and why wouldn’t he?

    His team, which lost to Eastern Kentucky and Green Bay in Coral Gables earlier this season, had just ended the longest home winning streak in college basketball. His team, which had scored just a combined 99 points in those two ugly losses, put up 90 on the Blue Devils.

    How did that happen?

    To hear Larrañaga tell it, it’s pretty simple.

    “You can’t run offense, you must play offense.”

    Larrañaga’s point is simple, really, but first, you need to understand what Duke wants to do on the defensive end. Head coach Mike Krzyzewski employs a pressuring, half-court, man-to-man defense. His guards will pick up defensively as soon as a ballhandler crosses half court, the goal being to force their opponents to initiate an offensive set 40 feet from the rim. The other perimeter defenders will be pressuring as well, overplaying passing lanes in an effort to make the first pass leading into the offense as difficult as possible.

    There are wrinkles that the Blue Devils will use from time to time — they’ll pick up defensively for the length of the court, they’ll switch all perimeter screens and/or exchanges, etc. — but the simplest way to describe Duke’s defense is this: Their main goal defensively is to prevent you from running what you want to run.

    Here’s an example from Duke’s loss to N.C. State on Sunday. Rasheed Sulaimon is guarding Trevor Lacey, who was forced to handle the ball for 94 feet. As Lacey is trying to get the Wolfpack into their offense, look at how much pressure Sulaimon is putting on him and where Quinn Cook …


    … and Tyus Jones are as Lacey looks to pass the ball to the wing:


    Here’s the entire possession, which ends with BeeJay Anya finding Abdul Malik-Abu in a high-low action. Abu missed a layup.


    And that’s why Larrañaga’s quote makes sense. You can’t necessarily rely on having great schemes and great sets if you’re going to break down the Blue Devils’ defense. You have to be able to make plays against them, which, coincidentally enough, is the reason that Duke has suddenly gone from appearing to be Kentucky’s biggest challenger to a team that can’t seem to stop anyone.

    The Blue Devils allowed Miami to score 1.22 points-per-possession in Tuesday night’s 90-74 loss, which was marginally worse than the 1.24 PPP that N.C. State scored in Sunday’s 87-75 loss. Those two performances have dropped Duke all the way down to 67th in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to Kenpom. They were 11th nationally entering Sunday.

    It’s hard to make any hard and fast conclusions off of just two games in a 31-game regular season, but there are some major red flags.

    RELATED: What is Virginia’s ‘Pack-Line’ defense, and why is it so effective?

    Duke’s defensive philosophy more or less dares opposing guards to try and break them down 1-on-1 off the dribble or in pick-and-roll actions. That’s a problem because both of Duke’s starting guards — senior Quinn Cook and freshman Tyus Jones — are small and below-average on-the-ball defenders. By itself, size isn’t a major issue; Louisville won a national title with Russ Smith and Peyton Siva, who both stand about 5-foot-11, but Cook and Jones are nowhere near the pests that Smith and Siva were defensively. They shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same conversation.

    The problem gets magnified by Jahlil Okafor. As talented and dominant as he can be on the offensive end of the floor, Okafor is turning into a liability on the defensive end. For starters, he simply isn’t a great rim protector. He’s going to put up decent numbers because he’s 6-foot-11 with a solid wingspan, but there isn’t the same kind of fear for guards attacking the rim or bigs posting up against Duke as there is against, say, Kentucky or Washington.

    Take a look at this clip. It’s freshman Davon Reed, a 6-foot-5 wing, scoring over Okafor. Does he look concerned about challenging the big man?


    That’s what cost Duke against N.C. State. Trevor Lacey and Ralston Turner (37 points combined) got the headlines, but it was the 31 points they got from big men Anya, Abu and Kyle Washington that really made the difference

    That’s not the biggest issue, however.

    Okafor’s pick-and-roll defense is.

    Miami has a trio of really good perimeter scorers in Angel Rodriguez, Manu Lecomte and Shelden McClellan, and what Larrañaga has done this season is build an offense that is essentially built around putting those three in ball-screen actions.

    “We run ball screens every day, all the time,” Larrañaga said. “And our goal was to set one, if not two or three or four ball screens on every possession because our guards are best when they’re on attack. The ball screen gives them a chance to get free a little bit and attack the paint.”

    “If you go behind the ball screen, they could hit a three,” he added. “If you go over it, then they have a chance to attack the big man.”

    Thanks for doing my job for me, Jim.

    Here’s Rodriguez burying his fourth three of the game, as Cook goes under the ball-screen:


    And, on the very next half court possession for the Hurricanes, here’s Cook going over the screen and Rodriguez attacking the flat-footed Okafor, who commits a foul:


    This won’t be the last time that this issue comes up, either.

    Duke plays at Louisville on Saturday, and Louisville loves putting guards Terry Rozier and Chris Jones in ball-screen actions. And less than three weeks after that — after Duke plays on the road against St. John’s and No. 2 Virginia — the Blue Devils will pay a visit to Notre Dame, another team that loves putting their talented guards in ball-screen action.

    In total, Duke plays four of their next five on the road, which includes games against arguably the three best teams in the ACC.

    The Blue Devils need to get these questions answered quickly.